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Wesleyan student competes next week in national bee

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Wesleyan School seventh-grader Nicholas Poulos, 13, will be representing Georgia during the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee competition in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday. Poulos of Tucker won the state spelling bee competition in March.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Wesleyan School seventh-grader Nicholas Poulos, 13, will be representing Georgia during the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee competition in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday. Poulos of Tucker won the state spelling bee competition in March.

If You Watch

• Who: Nicholas on TV

• When: Preliminaries on ESPN3, 8 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. Wednesday

Semifinals on ESPN2, 2 p.m. Thursday

Finals on ESPN, 8 p.m. Thursday

PEACHTREE CORNERS -- Nicholas Poulos has a keyboard. It isn't real.

Give him a word, and his head tilts, eyes moving upward. Fingertips resting on invisible "asdfjkl;" keys, he mouths the letters as he pecks away -- thud, thud, thud -- against the smooth wood surface of a table.

It's automatic. He's not putting on a show. Poulos, a 13-year-old student at Wesleyan School, called it "a tic" and smiled about it Thursday during a break from classes inside a conference room at the school.

His imaginary keyboard has not once let him down. Not in the school spelling bee, the district bee or the state bee, which he won earlier this spring.

"I've always been a fast typer," Poulos said. "People will say things, and I'll have to type it out in my head, sometimes with my hands. It not only increased my typing speed, but it helps me get through some really tough words."

He'll be putting the invisible keyboard to the test next week, when he goes up against the country's top spellers Wednesday and Thursday at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.

It's going to be a big deal: Television crews from ESPN, a $30,000 cash prize and some fierce, fierce competition.

Lucky for Poulos, he loves competition. Wesleyan teacher Jane Leake said the boy thrives in such environments.

As the school's spelling bee coordinator, Leake has in the past helped coach him. "He's confident, and it comes from the fact that he just knows a lot," Leake said. "It's not false bravado."

Despite a seemingly calm exterior, Poulos said he actually does get nervous during spelling bees, very much so. Poulos is smart -- almost intimidating in his grasp of the English language. But he's also a kid. He's a seventh-grader with an aversion to studying and a weakness for barbecue and Brunswick stew (he once ate three bowls of the stuff at one sitting).

"I keep telling my mom she needs to learn how to make it," Poulos said, "I love it."

Other things he loves: soccer, creative writing, acting, fishing and hunting.

His most recent hunting trip was a jaunt through South Georgia woods shooting quail with his father, Jason. "That was some of the most fun I've had in a long time. I got a pheasant too, which was cool and kind of unusual," he said.

Things he doesn't love: studying and traveling. "My parents love to travel, much to my chagrin," he said.

The young man said he prefers to spend time relaxing: reading, watching TV or playing computer games.

But if he's doing any of the above, it's a little tough communicating with him.

"When I do something, I focus all my energy on it," he said. "I'm OK at multitasking, but I prefer to be focused on one thing. My parents have said that I focus on things to the point that I exclude everything else,"

His laser focus is one reason he's not a big fan of reviewing schoolwork.

"It's because I'm soaking in the information in class when other people are maybe not paying attention as closely," he said. "It decreases the amount of time I have to study. When I study it's more reviewing than anything. In class, once I learn it, and I've usually got it on a fast recall."

Mom Donna Poulos said Nicholas has a photographic memory.

"His recall is amazing," said Donna, who sat Thursday morning with Nicholas in the Wesleyan conference room. "He's truly blessed."

She remembers once when one of her friends asked a 4-year-old Nicholas what his favorite TV show was.

His response was a series of letters: "S-U-P-E-R-M-A-R-K-E-T-S-W-E-E-P."

Donna said she's excited about going to Washington, D.C. next week to see her son compete against some of the country's sharpest.

"He has worked really hard to get to where he is," she said. "I couldn't be prouder. It's such a joy."

Poulos, who has been his school's spelling bee champion since fifth grade, said he's "more of an auditory learner."

"I try to picture the roots of the words that I don't know," he said.

Take, for instance, somnambulist.

"Well, I know the Latin prefix, 'somn,' means 'sleep,' and 'ambul' means 'walk,' so I immediately know how to spell it when I hear it, and I know it means 'sleepwalker.'"

Once he gets stumped on a word, he never forgets it, especially those which in the past kept him from competing in the state spelling bee. In fifth grade it was "susceptible." In sixth grade: "neoprene."

Leake said next week's appearance by Poulos in Washington, D.C. will be the first time Wesleyan School has ever had a student participating. As a competitor, Leake said that the young man "can sometimes be very hard on himself, because he expects a lot of himself. He wants to be the best."

Nicholas described spelling bee competitors as "pretty serious. Nobody really talks to each other before the competition, because they're all just really focused on winning."Leake said that because Nicholas is "not easily shaken, and he's able to think on the spot" he will do well Wednesday and Thursday.

Said Nicholas: "I hope I make it at least to the semifinals, but I'm ready to get this spelling bee behind me and actually start my summer."

After studying a list of more than 1,400 words over the past several weeks, Nicholas said there's no real trick to knowing all of them. There are curveballs out there that he tries to watch out for, like this one: "bdelloid."

It's pronounced with a "D" -- without the "B." It describes a class of rotifers found in fresh water.

"There's several words like that ... words that are really, really weird, but if I come across it, I'll probably remember it ... 'bdelloid.'" Nicholas said, his fingertips moving with involuntary ease against the surface of the wooden table.

And just like that, it's saved to the hard drive.