The finals of the 88th Scripps National Spelling Bee are going on in Maryland over the next few days. One of those quaint bits of Americana that persists in the face of being utterly mooted by technology. Who needs to know how to spell? Tap out a jumble of letters somewhat close to the correct spelling and your phone will do the rest.
Yet millions of kids dutifully study long lists of words, and jam themselves into the wide end of that funnel squirting out one lone champion (or, at best, like last year, two) this Friday.
Why? That’s easy. It’s a way for children who otherwise might not find opportunities for acclaim to win big. Any kid who can run fast or pitch hard can find fleeting glory playing sports. But the ability to focus, to study hard, for years? Who honors that? You’ve got science fairs, chess tournaments and the spelling bee, and that’s about it.
This year there is bee controversy. The Washington Post, which watches the bee more closely than most, since it finishes up in the newspaper’s backyard, spotlighted the domination of the bee by Indian-American kids, who have taken the championship seven years in a row.
Which led to ugly social media condemnation last year. Co-champions Sriram Hathwar and Ansun Sujoe “were greeted with a barrage of racist comments on Facebook and Twitter,” the Post reported, citing examples such as, “The kids in the spelling bee should only be AMERICAN.”
Like the Post, I have a particular interest in the bee. In 1993, I was writing a book on failure, and thought it should include something related to public school — that’s where much of our fear of failure comes from, the red F, all those nightmares where you’re taking a test you haven’t studied for. But what to actually report on? A student failing a class? A girl who didn’t make the cheerleading squad? That seemed so bleak. And then I remembered the National Spelling Bee. It was perfect. Nine million kids enter. They all lose, in a public, humiliating way that gets more public and more humiliating as it goes along. And it’s spelling, it’s stupid, it’s not even a valuable skill.
So I decided I would follow a student through a year of the bee, through local, regional, state and national bees.
But how to find one student in the Chicago area with a chance of going to the nationals?
I formed a strategy: hedge your bets. Those who go to the national round are often those who went to the nationals in the past. So I would observe a past state winner who would have a better chance to go back for another go. The two previous winners from Illinois were kids named Gary Lee and Sruti Nadimpalli. My reporter’s instinct told me it would be far easier to find the latter, and I did. She was 12 then, a serious girl, the child of two doctors. I followed her through her bees at the school, regional and state levels. She didn’t go to nationals, but I did, and found a brutal competition. The chapter in my book was called, “Shiver Like Rhesus Monkeys,” the way a Scripps flack described the weeping losers.
Twenty-two years is a long time, but again, thanks to her distinctive name, I found Sruti in about 10 seconds, a doctor herself now, teaching at the Stanford University School of Medicine. I asked her how she views the bee, from the perspective of an adult in her mid-30s.
“I think studying spelling fosters a love of language in many of the participants, the preparation is intense, and rote, and — depending on one’s parents’ approach — can be a bit much,” she wrote in an email. “In this age as well, I don’t think good spelling carries the value it used to. That said, I probably wouldn’t have opted out of participating if I could do it over again.”
Her mention of parents made me realize something. A lot of these kids are in the bee because their folks push them. Which puts an extra cruel spin on the abuse of winners. Their ambitious, often new immigrant parents force them to participate in this surreal struggle where, after years of effort, should by some fluke they emerge victorious, then the children of parents who let them spend their youths playing Xbox await to heckle them online. That isn’t right.