WASHINGTON - Jasmine Eapen was not supposed to be smiling.

The eighth-grade student from Southwest Middle School in Lakeland had just been knocked out of the Scripps National Spelling Bee after the preliminary rounds.

She had competed at the local level the past two years but failed to reach the national bee. Now, at 14, she is too old to try again next year.

But there she was, leaning against a wall in a large capital hotel Wednesday, looking satisfied despite admitting some disappointment.

"I'm feeling pretty good I got this far," she said.

She didn't get this far just because she was enthralled by spelling or the allure of bee season, when students across the country pore over word lists and dictionaries to win local and regional competitions that lead to a shot at the national title. For Eapen, spelling competitions were a way to meet other kids after moving to Florida from New Jersey two months into her sixth-grade year.

A teacher suggested she try it. Love of the competition took hold later.

"It's been a wonderful time," Eapen said.

Through her months of study, Eapen had a coach in Jessica Davis, a sixth-grade language arts teacher at the school who volunteered her time and made the trip to Washington.

On Wednesday, Eapen correctly spelled "genial" in the initial oral round. But she got only 12 or 13 right on a multiple-choice test. The scores were combined, with three points for a correct oral answer and one point for each right response on the test.

At most she had 16 points, but the 107 spellers who moved on to the next round had at least 21.

In March, Eapen won a regional competition sponsored by Direct Gates, which paid for her trip to Washington, D.C. She was among 286 spellers to start the competition Wednesday morning. The bee continues today.

Eapen's father, Binu Eapen, said the spelling bees forced a withdrawn young girl into a new place to mingle with others and to stand in front of crowds and compete.

"I'm extremely proud," he said. "It really made a difference with her communicating with people."