You don’t have to be Indian. But it seems to help.
Kavya Shivashankar, of Olathe, Kan., wiped her tears as E.W. Scripps CEO Richard Boehne presented her with the trophy for winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee. She correctly spelled “Laodicean” for the win. The 13-year-old hopes to be a neurosurgeon someday.
I think I see a pattern here. When 13-year-old Kavya Shivashankar calmly spelled “Laodicean” this past Thursday to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, she became the seventh Indian-American to take the title in the past 11 contests. As the Times of India boasted, at this point an Indian-American win at the Spelling Bee has “an air of inevitability.” So Indian kids must have a natural advantage, right?
Well actually, no. Consider the winner in 2004, David Tidmarsh, a fair-haired Midwestern boy whose ancestors never ventured anywhere near New Delhi. I spoke with David in between final rounds on the day he won, and he confided his technique to me. In between gulps of anxious breathing — David almost hyperventilated on stage — he explained that he studied by reading the dictionary.
“How much of it did you read?” I asked.
“The whole thing,” he said with a sheepish grin. The straight-A student trawled though the entire Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary — some 450,000 words. David worked seven days a week for months on end, including when he was sick. And he admitted he even lugged along Webster’s on family vacations.
That is the secret to winning the National Bee. The natural advantage of David, Kavya and all the other kids who have taken the trophy is a fierce and unswerving dedication to their study. The Spelling Bee is a workaholic’s game. No weekend enthusiasts need apply.
In addition to discipline, winning the Bee requires a broad education. No mind can memorize the spelling of 450,000 words. Top spellers must be able to make an educated guess about obscure words using their wide-ranging knowledge of etymology, science, geography, history and literature.
So a top speller needs a rise-at-dawn work ethic and a multidisciplinary education. Still, you ask, why are there so many Indian winners given the fact that people of Indian descent only make up around 1% of the U.S. population? Surely there are American kids of all backgrounds who are hard workers with a great education.
Of course there are. Yet an outsized share of Indian pride is attached to achievements in traditional education.
The cultural pride that Indian-Americans bring to the Bee is deep. In 1985, Balu Natarajan was the first Indian-American competitor to win the Bee. Winning this quintessentially American contest prompted a heartfelt reaction among a new wave of immigrants. Holding that trophy aloft as the cameras clicked proved you were as American as any of your neighbors and that you could compete — and win — in the new world.
In the years I spent reporting the National Bee I spoke with spellers’ families from all over the U.S. Though they were from all kinds of backgrounds, virtually all the families were bookish, even wonderfully old-fashioned in their tendency to limit TV in favor of studies.
Yet it was the Indian parents that consistently repeated the mantra: For us, it’s all about education. Making sure that their children performed exceptionally well in all their studies — which supports the cross-discipline smarts of a top speller — is of non-negotiable importance.
This approach, which so often enables Indian-American kids to win, has ramifications that transcend the Bee. Victories by the likes of Kavya are signposts for the future. As national boundaries collapse and competition becomes increasingly international, it’s clear that the next generation of movers and shakers will come from families that emphasize education so intensely that they can compete and win in a second culture.
The shelf full of trophies won by the children of immigrants throws a challenge back at America itself. Can the country as a whole keep pace with their educational attainment? Can we bootstrap ourselves as we have in the past, this time leading a global marketplace? Can we view education not as an expense but as a critical investment?
The Great Spelling Bee of the 21st century awaits. Are we ready to face the microphone?
Mr. Maguire is the author of “American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds” (Rodale, 2006).
Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124398728702579459.html