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Oops We Did it Again! Desi Wins the Spelling Bee

Posted: Jun 03, 2012

The Indian American parent can rest easy for another year. The beloved crown is secure. The kingdom is still in desi hands. Snigdha Nandipati, 14 spelled “guetapens” to win the 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee crown. She became the fifth desi queen bee in a row.

Actually the crown was ethnically secure this time. The runner up is Stuti Mishra, 14, who was felled by “schwarmerei.”

Growing up in India, we ran the gamut of Bournvita quiz contests and school debates and science fairs. But the spelling bee is a fascinating characteristic of the Indian-American nerd. At first it was kinda cute to see the serious bespectacled brown faces gamely breaking down the words and the anxious faces of the parents. It was rare to see desis in any kind of competitive sports. But now it’s become as filmmaker Tanuj Chopra told ESPN “the desi Hunger Games.”

It’s reached such an ethnic obsession Metlife even started the South Asian spelling bee in the US which sounds like a cross between an IIT-JEE coaching class and a secret training camp for some sort of elite Indian spelling commando task force. I remember going into one at the Indian Community Center in Milpitas, California and realising this was a special place. All 63 spellers aced their elimination round and made it into the finals. “If you were planning to leave early, call and cancel,” the organiser told the crowd.

It’s the crowd that’s utterly fascinating. There was a mother who was painstakingly writing down each word in the spelling bee binder. A grandfather in a Cisco baseball cap was documenting the excitement on the iPhone. A little sister sat patiently on the chair, silently mouthing the words her brother was spelling on stage, learning the ropes before her own debut. Dads in t-shirts and shorts texted updates endlessly. There is no spelling bee gene Indians are blessed with, just wanna bee families.

I met one boy who was then 13 but had been doing it since he was 6. “I used to have a lucky t-shirt but then it got too small,” he said. Another goggle eyed eight year old said, “Kavya Shivshankar is my role model”. Kavya, of course, is the 2009 national winner. Her sister Vanya, 10, a favourite this time was knocked out by “pejerrey”. After she spelled Laodicean to become Queen Bee, Kavya said it was her dream and she hoped she could coach her little sister next.

Noooo. Stop. Please make this madness stop.

I used to be a word geek too. I would sit on our window sill early in the morning while the family slept and read our old falling apart Oxford dictionary for pleasure. I don’t know how many of those words stuck with me. I don’t know if their love affair with words will stick with these kids when they turn 15 or 16. Or will they only remember the words they stumbled on. Schwarmerei for Stuti Mishra, pejerrey for Vanya.

Everyone had a reason about why this spelling bee obsession was good for their children’s future especially in the age of Spellcheck. Knowing how to spell erythromycin and fibrillation could give you a headstart on that medical career, for instance. It was about teaching kids discipline, hard work, how to break down a problem. It was wholesome and not as rough and tumble as football. The parents understood the rules unlike baseball. But really it’s about winning and inculcating that desire to win as early as possible. If you think wanting your child to be a spelling bee champion is just a cute nerdy ambition and not the warning sign of grooming an overachiever think again. This year’s winner Snigdha Nandipati plays the violin, is fluent in Telugu, is a coin collector and wants to be a neurosurgeon.

Only one father had a different take. “Many of these kids are just used to winning everything they touch. Now and then a little reminder of reality and a little humility is good for the soul.”

Why do you do this, I asked one young speller.

“I don’t necessarily like it,” he admitted. “It’s a lot of rote memorisation, kinda boring. But if I am good it, why not do it?” (That incidentally is also the same reason many desi kids wander into engineering and medicine.)

“Our backgrounds tend to force us to bang on our kids heads until they do it,” said one mother. She said her older son is quite good at it. But he’s aging out. Now the pressure is on the younger one. He was not a spelling bee type at all. “But I am feeling, god, he has to do it because everyone is telling me to do it.”

Her son didn’t win that bee. It was his last chance. I asked him what he had learned.

“A lot of words,” he said tiredly. Then he paused. “What I still haven’t learned is how to cope with failure.”

Congratulations, Snigdha Nandipati and Stuti Mishra. But also congratulations to Vanya Shivshankar and Arvind Mahakali and the others who didn’t make it to the top.

As for the rest of desi parents out there, you’ve come, seen, and conquered. Or as they say in KKR-land these days, no need to go korbo, lorbo, jeetbo anymore. That battle has been long won. Let’s take a well-deserved vacation from it, shall we?

That’s V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N.

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