FORT WORTH -- Nicole Petry was embarrassed by the way she spoke English when she arrived in the United States in 2008.
"My first day of school in the United States I was so shy I only said 'meow' to my teacher," said Nicole, 12, who had studied mostly Portuguese and Spanish growing up in Brazil. "English was difficult at first, but then it got easy because I had good teachers."
She started school in classes for limited-English speakers and now has won the Fort Worth school district's area spelling bee and will advance to the regional competition later this month.
Nicole moved to Texas after her mother married a man from the area. She began school at George Clark Elementary, which has a program designed to help new immigrants. Nicole said her teachers and a younger neighborhood friend helped her progress quickly.
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"She was real patient and careful with me," Nicole said of her friend. "When I said something wrong or with a bad accent, she would stop me and correct me until I got it right."
Last year, Nicole moved into mainstream classes at Westcliff Elementary, where she became interested in the bee. She and classmates spent many lunch periods practicing spelling. Nicole won the school's competition last year and made it to the final rounds of the area competition but did not win.
Now a student at McLean 6th Grade Center, Nicole practices about an hour every night from lists provided by her mom, Nadja Smith, and campus librarian Lisa Heick.
Heick, who organizes the bee at that campus, said Nicole breezed through the sixth-grade words and now practices eighth-grade and high school words.
"I'm very much in awe of her being able to spell so well," Heick said. "She's a natural."
Smith said her daughter was nervous at first but fell in love with the intense competition. Smith helps Nicole practice but says sometimes her own accent gets in the way.
"She said I'm the worst pronouncer in the world," Smith said, laughing.
Knowing three languages can help with spelling -- especially with Latin-based words -- but can also make spelling trickier, Nicole said.
"It's easy to confuse some letters that sound the same in different languages -- like t's and c's or e's and a's," she said. "They all start getting me dizzy sometimes."
But Nicole isn't obsessed with spelling and makes sure to find time to be creative or just relax.
"When I start to see letters bouncing off the walls, I just sit and knit or crochet or watch TV," she said. "I'm also an inventor. I like to find little toys and find ways to make them move around like a robot or something."
Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700