Calm, cool and c-o-l-l-e-c-t-e-d

When Leya Dereje comes to compete in a spelling bee, organizers often don't realize she's a contestant because she's not nervous like her opponents. "She's a calm, cool and collected cat," says Sarah Graboyes, a magnet coordinator at Randolph IB middle where Leya, 12, is in seventh grade.

Leya, who won the CMS district spelling bee in January, says she's calm until the final rounds. "At the end, when it's two people, I get nervous," she says. But she has developed a coping mechanism. "I think of a happy place, like the beach."

Leya could well be thinking of the beach when she competes in the regional bee Feb. 19 at Imaginon. She'll be facing a lot of opponents – the bee draws district winners from most of north and western North Carolina. But they'll have to be very good indeed to top the Randolph International Baccalaureate student, who is an avid reader – "I'm in my dystopian novel period right now," she says. Her mother, Tersit Dereje, chimes in. "Sometimes I have to tell her to stop reading!"

Leya just finished reading "The Hunger Games" and "The Uglies." She's also recently completed "Divergent" and "Matched."

But her interests are wide. Her favorite subject is math and her trophy collection includes four won in Math Olympiad and other math competitions, as well as three she's won this year for spelling victories – two from the Central Learning community competition and one from the district bee. She likes to swim. She enjoys art as well. "I like drawing a lot," she says.

She has a lot of support at school and at home for the next round of spelling competition. The seventh-grade hallway at Randolph is lined with posters made and signed by her classmates, celebrating her wins so far and wishing her well next time. Her parents and her 10-year-old brother will come to the regional bee to cheer her on. So will Graboyes and Brian Bambauer, the principal at Randolph, who say they will be much more nervous than Leya during the competition.

Leya is relaxed and ready but she clearly wants to win Feb. 19 at the regional bee. She felt the sting of loss two years ago when she just missed winning at the district level. "She was sad the whole month and didn't want to hear any words," her mother recalls. This time, however, she persevered and won. In fact, Leya says, the trophy was the first thing she thought of after correctly spelling "endocrinologist" to win the district title. Her seven trophies are in her room at home – and now she's hoping to increase her collection to eight with a regional win.