Miscellany — From the May 2017 issue
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Miscellany — From the May 2017 issue
The final two contestants of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, held just outside Washington last May, had gone head-to-head for ten rounds. Nihar Janga, a toothy eleven-year-old with a bowl cut and the vocal pitch of a cartoon character, delighted the audience by breaking with custom: instead of asking the official pronouncer for definitions, he provided them himself. Taoiseach: “Is this an Irish prime minister?” (Yes.) Biniou: “Is this a Breton bagpipe?” (Right again.) His opponent, Jairam Hathwar, a stoic thirteen-year-old, had been favored to win, in large part because his older brother, Sriram, had won in 2014.
But Jairam was hesitating. The kids had made it through their school and regional contests, in New York and Texas, respectively, as well as a series of tests at nationals, where they handled such unpronounceables as gyttja, chremslach, and uintjie. Now he was being asked to spell drahthaar, an obscure German breed of dog. Nihar knew this one. Jairam didn’t. He made an attempt, “D-R-A-A-T-H-A-A-R.” Nihar shook his head. When Jairam finished, a bell dinged to indicate his error; he blanched and went to his seat. Then Nihar leaned forward, thrust his hands in Jairam’s face, and began, expressionlessly, to clap. That is how Nihar Janga came to be called the Machine.
A few months later, on a Friday night in August, I was standing with the Machine in the lobby of a Holiday Inn in Tampa, Florida, when his former rival walked through the door. Nihar charged over and squealed, “Jairam! I missed you!” Jairam took a step back. “Hi, Nihar,” he said. The two had ended up as cochampions at Scripps (a more common occurrence lately) thanks to a quirk in spelling-bee rules: when there are two people left onstage and one of them misspells in a round, the other has to correctly spell a final word in order to win. After Jairam flubbed drahthaar, Nihar erred on ayacahuite, sending the contest into twelve more rounds before a tie was declared. The prize for each boy was $40,000.
Nihar and Jairam were friends, having met on the spelling circuit a year earlier. Nihar was the more excitable of the pair, prone to gleeful shouting, sometimes at inappropriate moments. After Scripps, he’d insisted to me that he offered the definitions of words because it made him feel more confident. He also said that his applause at the misspelling of drahthaar had been meant to cheer Jairam up, not to intimidate him. Jairam, polite and good-natured, accepted this — or, in any case, said that he did.
We were in Tampa for the championships of another annual spelling competition, this one sponsored by a nonprofit called the North South Foundation, open only to kids of Indian descent. Earlier in the year, more than 3,300 children had competed in regional contests. Around 300 of them advanced to the finals. That weekend, the North South Foundation wasn’t just holding a spelling bee; it was also running contests in subjects including math and neuroscience, and the organization gives out college scholarships to poor high-school students in India. But the spelling bee is by far its best known and most significant event. For the past decade, Indian Americans have dominated the Scripps National Spelling Bee — among last year’s top ten were seven Indian spellers — and all the recent champions competed at the N.S.F. bee first. Nihar told me that his experience there established his training regimen. Also, he said, “If I hadn’t done N.S.F., I would have felt very scared spelling in front of a lot of people.”
The N.S.F. bee is modeled after Scripps, though unlike at Scripps, where children up to eighth grade compete against one another, N.S.F. is split into a junior division (third grade and below) and a senior division (fourth through eighth). Nihar had won a junior bee, but neither he nor Jairam had managed to win at the senior level. Scripps champions are not allowed to compete, so this year they came as volunteers.
I proposed that we go for dinner at the hotel’s burger place, and invited their older siblings — Nihar’s sister Navya, who had dabbled in spelling but was more interested in neuroscience, and Sriram, the former Scripps winner — to come along. I explained to them that my interest in hanging out was personal. Back in the mid-Nineties, I had been a preteen, Indian-American spelling nerd, too. I made it to the Scripps Bee in 1994 and placed forty-fourth. The following year I returned and tied for third place. My losing word was periplus — “a voyage or a trip around something (as an island or a coast).” I spelled it with an extra -se at the end.
The N.S.F. bee was only a year old when I got into the spelling scene, and I hadn’t heard of it. It was a different time to be Indian-American. No Mindy Kaling or Aziz Ansari, no Kamala Harris or Nikki Haley. When I was growing up I’d tell kids that I was Indian, and they’d assume I meant Native American. Only two Indian Americans had ever won at Scripps, and it seemed unimaginable that twenty years later people would consider spelling a characteristically Indian-American pursuit.
Our group sat down to dinner. Nihar announced that he wanted chocolate milk. “Sriram, what are you having?” Jairam whispered to his brother. “I’ll just have the same thing as you.” They’re vegetarians; they both got mushroom burgers. Nihar wanted pizza. I hit them with my most pressing question. Did they know how to spell periplus?
“Definition?” Nihar asked.
“Circumnavigation around an island.”
The boys turned to each other for a silent consultation. “So, P-E-R-I —” Jairam said.
“ — P-L-U-S,” Nihar finished. Non-spellers might assume that mastering competitive spelling depends on rote memorization. Not exactly. Though Jairam and Nihar both recalled having encountered periplus, neither remembered how to spell the word. They derived the spelling from the definition — guessing, for example, that it must start with peri-, meaning “around.”
Nihar told Jairam that I’d tied for third place. “Oh, that’s really good,” Jairam said magnanimously. I received this like a benediction.
Our waiter came over, and I made sure he knew that he was serving the 2016 Scripps cochampions. He was impressed. His name was Chris, he said, and he’d won his school bee years ago, but lost at a regional competition in Orlando. His losing word was coelacanth. Nihar spelled it for him.
When it was time to order dessert, Chris explained the restaurant’s gimmick, that everything was served in mason jars. S’mores in a jar. Key lime pie in a jar. For once, the kids seemed puzzled. Sriram asked, “What’s a mason jar?”
My route to the National Spelling Bee was by way of Edmond, Oklahoma. In 1993, my family moved from Saskatchewan, Canada, because my father, a doctor, was starting a residency. When we arrived, he paged through the phone book until he found an Indian-sounding surname. This was how our family would make friends.
The local community of Indian-American immigrants was close-knit and welcoming. On weekends, people would convene in the morning at a local Hindu temple, and then a larger group would meet in the evening for a party at someone’s home. We’d load rice and curry onto double-stacked paper plates that bowed under the weight of our meals. The women would sit gossiping in the kitchen. The men would congregate in the living room to discuss cricket and politics. I would be with my older sister and the other girls in a daughter’s bedroom looking at magazines; we brushed one another’s hair and talked about Brad Pitt. During those gatherings, I could sense the mildest current of academic competition — here my social status, and therefore that of my parents, was determined partly by how well I did in school compared with these peers. I felt an added sense of pressure because we were newcomers.
At the time, the Indian-American star in town was a kid named Bernie George. My mother set out to make our family name by ensuring that my sister and I bested him at everything he did. Bernie was a well-rounded competitor in math and academic bowls, at which my sister excelled; my contribution would be to face off against him in our regional spelling bee, which he’d won the previous year. To prepare, I memorized all the words in a booklet provided by Scripps. The unquestioning allegiance with which my sister and I took to the family project could be explained by noting that Indian culture, like many Asian cultures, is communalistic — there is no project except the family project — but that seems unnecessarily academic. The salient point is this: I beat Bernie.
Not that the high lasted long. When I went on to nationals, I choked. Asked to spell ecstasize, I began, “E-C-S-T-A-T —” I knew my error right away, but the spelling bee bars contestants from starting over when they’ve messed up. So, just like that, I was out. We, the Varas of Edmond, were out. But that only fed our ambition to try harder the next year.
It came down to my mom and me. My dad was occupied with his residency; my sister decided that she’d rather spend her free time swimming or playing tennis. My mom and I were the dedicated linguaphiles. She often told me stories of her childhood, in a small town in South India. Her mother, a housewife from the age of fourteen, had pushed her four daughters toward education and self-determined lives. Their language was Telugu, but my mom started studying English in sixth grade, and as a teenager she became obsessed with British writers — William Shakespeare, Georgette Heyer, Thomas Hardy. By the time she and my father moved to Canada, when she was twenty-nine, she was fluent in English and had a master’s degree in political science. She taught me to read when I was three years old.
My mom wrote to Scripps asking for copies of the word lists from previous bees. We’d spend entire weekends studying together. She’d read a word aloud, and I’d spell it. I still have a box of papers with exotic words written in my mom’s handwriting. Sgaw. Apothem and apothegm. Next to each word is a collection of check marks and X’s. My mom went to such great lengths on my behalf that she became an expert speller herself, and when Scripps held a just-for-fun bee for parents, her team placed second.
But because she had a job, as a family counselor, she wasn’t home when I returned from school. So she came up with an ingenious method to allow me to study alone: she taped herself reading the words and their spellings. I’d lie on the carpet in the living room, listening to her voice on the cassette player. Between each word and its spelling, I’d hit pause to test myself. I told my friends that my mom made me do it. The truth was that I loved spelling.
This was not cool to admit — even dorkier than it would be today. No one cared about the Scripps National Spelling Bee except the spellers and their families. The prize money for the champion was $5,000. A winner might get mentioned in the local paper and possibly make an appearance on Good Morning America, but the accolades pretty much ended there.
My first appearance at Scripps, however, marked a turning point. That year, the bee’s final rounds were broadcast on ESPN’s daytime TV. Later they moved to prime time, airing to ever-greater enthusiasm. In 2000, Myla Goldberg published Bee Season, a well-received spelling-bee novel; two years later, the documentary Spellbound was released; and in 2006 came another popular film, Akeelah and the Bee. By the time Nihar and Jairam went to battle last May, the championship cash prize had increased eightfold, and Amazon Kindle, the event’s presenting sponsor, was featuring star spellers in commercials. Nearly a million people tuned in. While Nihar was spelling onstage, Lil Wayne was tweeting about him.
The morning after our dinner in Tampa, I rode with the Jangas to the campus of the University of South Florida, for the twenty-fourth annual North South Foundation Spelling Bee finals. Up an elevator and through a door marked war room — restricted area was the nerve center, with books and study guides scattered on tables. The official dictionary of Scripps is Merriam-Webster, so N.S.F. uses it as well. Dozens of volunteers hung around and waited for instructions. Nihar and Jairam found a spot at a table with Gokul Venkatachalam — their hero, a former N.S.F. speller who was one of the 2015 National Spelling Bee cochampions. Gokul was also volunteering. “They should call it, like, the arsenal,” he said, as he surveyed the place. He reconsidered. “Or the armarium.”1
1 Armarium is a Latin word for ambry, which is defined as “a recess in a church wall for holding sacramental vessels, vestments, or books.”
Standing among them was the founder and leader of the N.S.F., a rumpled elderly gentleman named Ratnam Chitturi. He wore an oversize pinstripe suit and walked with a cane to greet me. He was the one who came up with the War Room moniker. Like my parents, Chitturi is originally from Andhra Pradesh, a state on India’s southeastern coast, where he studied mechanical engineering. He immigrated to the United States in 1965, the year that Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which killed the old, racist quotas that favored immigrants from northwestern Europe. Chitturi was at the vanguard of mass arrivals from India: In 1960, there were 12,000 Indian immigrants living in the United States. By 1990, that figure had risen to nearly half a million.
Chitturi settled outside Chicago, and came to enjoy a successful career as a vice president of a bank while he raised two girls with his wife. But he felt purposeless. In 1989, he decided to start the North South Foundation — the name is a reference to the wealth gap between the hemispheres — to raise scholarship funds for underprivileged students in India. The organization was small and hardly known until 1993, when a friend of Chitturi’s named Murali Gavini, a sociable and energetic scientist also from Andhra Pradesh, said to him, “You’re doing wonderful things for kids in India, but what are we doing for the kids here?”
Gavini told me that he had been fed up with all the upper-middle-class Indian get-togethers where people offered coconuts to the gods and gorged themselves on rich food. It seemed like superficial fellowship. He wanted to do good, not just for well-to-do, educated Indian immigrants but also for the rest of the community. His daughter had been studying for the S.A.T.’s, and he thought an academic competition could help Indian-American teenagers prepare for college. Spelling, he told me, was simply the first idea that popped into his mind. He also had been vaguely aware that, eight years earlier, a thirteen-year-old named Balu Natarajan had become the first Indian American to win at Scripps.
Chitturi told Gavini to go ahead with the bee, but he couldn’t finance it; what little N.S.F. had was earmarked for the scholarships. So Gavini did his own fund-raising, and persuaded AT&T to donate $10,000. To recruit competitors, he contacted friends around the country and cold-called Indian organizations — the one for Telugu people, the one for Gujaratis. The first year, he held twelve regional bees, whose first- and second-place winners advanced to a championship round. He enlisted older kids, including his daughter, to volunteer as pronouncers. Two dozen spellers and their parents gathered at the high school in his hometown of New Providence, New Jersey, for the finals.
The bee expanded by word of mouth. “It was very slow growth,” Gavini recalled. By the late Nineties, some four hundred students were participating, and dozens regularly made it to Scripps. In 2003, an N.S.F. kid, Sai Gunturi, won Scripps for the first time. In 2008, another N.S.F. kid won. An N.S.F. kid won the next year, the year after that, and the year after that. Nihar and Jairam’s joint victory was the latest in a nine-year run of N.S.F.-veteran Scripps champions.
There are now more than 2 million Indian immigrants in the United States, making them the second-largest migrant group after Mexicans, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Despite this, or maybe because of it, Indian-American kids aren’t quite forgiven their otherness. When Gokul Venkatachalam and his 2015 Scripps cochampion, Vanya Shivashankar, appeared on Extra! for a spell-off with Mario Lopez and his cohosts, the big gag was having the hosts try to spell the kids’ last names. Racist tweets invariably accompany the Bee (“Nothing more American than a good spelling bee. Oh wait all the Caucasians are eliminated”). Even the most well-meaning attempts to understand the dominance of Indian-American spellers can be reductive. Shalini Shankar, an anthropologist at Northwestern University who is writing a book about spelling culture, told me that people ask her all the time if there is something inherent in the Indian brain that makes it well suited to this sort of competition — maybe a spelling gene?
It’s legitimate, of course, to wonder why kids of Indian origin keep conquering Scripps, despite making up a relatively small proportion of the population. When I put this question to Paige Kimble, the director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, she said, “It seems to me that more and more South Asians have integrated, and as they do so, they do what immigrant populations do, and that is to work very hard to be successful in their new country. I think that’s absolutely the dynamic in place that impacts the Bee.” Several N.S.F. parents said the same. They and their kids are ambitious and diligent, they told me. Some mentioned the fact that England had colonized India, so everyone had been required to learn English. One father told me that Indian children elevate the competition, and “some of the kids feel bad that they’re not Indian.” Another dad said, “If you look at the American mainstream, they spend a lot of time on sports. They go on Saturdays, they say, ‘Rah, rah, rah.’ But they don’t spend time on academics. Indian Americans are focused on education. Education is what got us here.”
Indian immigrants and their families tend to be wealthier and have more degrees than most other immigrant groups. N.S.F.’s entrance fee for regionals is thirty-five dollars, and for the championships it’s sixty; the true cost includes airline tickets and hotel rooms. “If you look at who’s training at this level, there’s often one stay-at-home parent who’s very educated,” Shankar told me. She sees more spelling-bee winners who are doctors’ children than janitors’. “They may not be über-wealthy people, but they’re very comfortably living in this country, to the extent that they can spend their time on this.” Murali Gavini, who had hoped his bee would be more inclusive, eventually became disillusioned and quit in the mid-Aughts.
Of course, there are lots of kids who fit a similar profile but devote their energies to tennis or piano practice or the debate team. What makes spelling special? As I spent time with Nihar, Jairam, and their friends, it occurred to me that the most plausible answer might be the simplest: because of the North South Foundation, these kids — not all Indian-American kids, but this particular privileged subset — have had the chance to participate in spelling bees since they were barely old enough to read. If peewee basketball were open only to Indian Americans, the N.B.A. might be full of them, too.
The first event of N.S.F.’s senior spelling bee is known as Phase 1, during which 140 national finalists sit in a large lecture hall and fill out a written test. All of those spellers also participate in Phase 2, an oral round. Then those phases are scored, and the top spellers move on to Phase 3. In the hall outside the Phase 1 room, I found Jacob Williamson, who came in seventh at the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee. His losing word was kabaragoya (“a large water monitor of southeastern Asia, the Malay archipelago, and the Philippines that sometimes reaches a length of seven feet”). On hearing the word, Jacob cried, “I know it! I know it! I totally know it!” and proceeded, heartbreakingly, to begin with a c. Since then, he has styled himself as a ringleader of the spelling community, as well as its unofficial historian and oddsmaker. When I mentioned to him the kid who’d won Scripps my first year there, he said, without a beat, “Ned Andrews. He wrote a book.”
Jacob is white. But he lives close to Tampa and got himself invited to volunteer at N.S.F. after another speller’s father introduced him to Chitturi. He’d ingratiated himself with this crowd by managing a Google Group where kids organize mock bees, geek out on language, and talk about all kinds of other things. For many of them, the group is the center of their social lives.
That morning, Jacob was trying to catch his friends as they left the Phase 1 room. “It gets pretty intense around this time for sure,” he told me. He paced. He asked an exhausted-looking volunteer whether the senior spellers would come out through the door where he was standing or another exit. The volunteer stared at him, this amped-up white kid, and then looked at me, as if to ask, Is he with you?
The junior spellers were lining up to go into the room for their own Phase 1. Parents were not allowed inside the building, so they thronged outside a pair of glass doors. Every couple of seconds, a mother would push a door open and call to her child something like, “Did you get your pencils?”
A volunteer stood before the doors and spread his arms. “Please, parents!” he cried. “Please, please!”
Spelling parents, like ballet parents and soccer parents, can get intense. In my box of old papers, I also discovered a letter from Corrie Loeffler, one of my Bee friends. She had written to let me know that she was trying out for cheerleading. On the other side of the paper, her mom had written a note with tips on studying the Latin and Greek roots of medical words. Loeffler now works for Scripps.
Ratnam Chitturi told me that he is trying to teach students to have an inquisitive, not acquisitive, approach to success; he asks judges not to make a big deal out of congratulating the winners. But he fields a lot of complaints: His kid got an easier word than mine. Mine’s only in the first grade, and it’s not fair that she has to compete against third graders. In the beginning, he used to hand out medals to participants. That wasn’t enough for some parents. “They’re saying, ‘We’re coming all this way, spending all this money. We want trophies!’ ” Chitturi explained. So he gave in and started distributing trophies. Then the parents said the trophies were too small. He got bigger ones. Now, he said, “The kids can’t even hold them.”
For Phase 2, the first oral round of the competition, the spellers were split into seven groups of twenty. Each group had to spell the same words, but in different rooms. I entered a lecture hall where Gokul was pronouncing the words and Shivani Kadakia, who placed fifth in the 1997 Scripps Bee, was judging. Kadakia, who leads meditation classes for a living, had a teacherish demeanor. She instructed everyone to turn off their phones.
“You’re like, ‘No one is going to WhatsApp me from India at ten in the morning,’ ” she said. “Oh, yes, they will. So turn it off.” She read the rules. The kids shuffled in their seats — no serious speller needed to be reminded. Then it was time to start. “Okay, everyone, take a deep breath, and let it out,” she said. “You’ll be fine! I know all the parents in the back are going” — she tapped on her heart — “da-dat, da-dat.”
The parents, it turned out, had little reason to worry. In this round the words were drawn from a published list of a thousand (Adonis, slaughter, auk, klister), which meant that anyone who’d memorized them would be fine.
Afterward, I headed out to a courtyard where lunch was being served. One of the spellers from my Phase 2 room, Naysa Modi, was in line with her father, Nayan. Naysa, a sixth grader who had participated in the National Spelling Bee the previous two years, was a sprite in a pink headband. When I asked her how the latest round had gone, she chirped: “If you saw me and Siyona Mishra” — another Scripps alum — “we were chatting our heads off!” The Modis came from a small town in Louisiana, where there wasn’t much of an Indian immigrant population. Nayan told me that they learned about the North South Foundation only recently, through the community they’d found at Scripps.
“I sometimes regret she started pretty late,” he said. “But what’s done is done.” I asked what was regrettable about it. “If she had started early,” he said, “she could have used that time to study.”
Naysa was walking beside him, listening intently while her father talked about her squandered potential. I thought that she might be embarrassed or annoyed. But it turned out that they were in complete agreement. “Kindergarteners,” she said, “are studying the words that I learned in the fourth grade.”
We arrived at the front of the line, and Nayan took a slice of pizza for his daughter; he’d eat later, he said. But as soon as we sat down, he realized that Naysa’s next event, the vocabulary bee, had already started. She leaped to her feet, eyes wide. “Go, go!” Nayan said. “Drink your water. Oh, my God. Take your pizza if you want.” She batted him away — there was no time for pizza — and ran off. He muttered, “Shit. Go, go, go, Naysa!”
Nayan and I got some food for ourselves and found Satish Upadhyayula, whose daughter, Smrithi, had just participated in her last Scripps Bee, where she’d placed fifth. She was about to start high school, and lately, she hadn’t been spending as much time spelling as she had practicing the piccolo and writing her second novel. “The spelling bee is very different from any other subject,” Satish said. “Parents’ involvement is very important. Somebody has to watch for their weak areas — maybe it’s French or German — and drill them. It’s a close bond, like between a coach and an athlete.”
“I mean, it is a sport,” Nayan agreed. “That’s why it’s on ESPN.”
A large, curly-haired man in a plaid shirt who was sitting quietly on the bench next to me chimed in. “I can give you a different perspective on spelling bees. But these guys won’t like it,” he said. His name was Kalyan Mysore, and he was there with his son, who was participating in the vocabulary bee but had stopped spelling. “You expend effort in this, you won’t get anything out of it beyond doing well in the spelling bee. Because these days, we have word processors, spell-check. So I decided to keep him away from spelling bees.”
The spelling dads nodded in a we-hear-you-but sort of way. “We used to feel that,” Satish said. “The difference is, my daughter is really good at it.”
If there were a champion of spelling parents, it would be Mirle Shivashankar. His older daughter, Kavya, who is about to graduate from Columbia, won at Scripps in 2009; before that, she’d competed at N.S.F. His younger daughter, Vanya, followed when she tied with Gokul Venkatachalam. Mirle credits the North South Foundation with giving kids a training ground, but said that it wasn’t really tough enough to prepare spellers for the challenge of the National Spelling Bee. Several years ago, he approached Ratnam Chitturi to propose an overhaul. “The way you’re running it right now,” he told Chitturi, “you’re not going to keep up.” He offered to take over as chief judge, and his reign began in 2011, assisted by his daughters. (Kavya had aged out of the spelling-bee circuit, and Vanya stopped participating at N.S.F. to avoid a conflict of interest.)
Mirle Shivashankar is the sort of man — tall, broad-shouldered, square-jawed — who seems naturally in charge. I’d first met him at Scripps a couple of months earlier, where he’d worn a bee necktie under a dark suit. Now I found him in the War Room, wearing what I learned was something of a uniform: suit, button-down, bee tie. (He has a large and varied bee-tie collection.) I mentioned my encounter with Kalyan Mysore, the spelling skeptic. “I call that ignorant,” he said. I suggested that the argument seemed like a decent one: What, after all, is the point of this? Mirle turned to me with derision. “Tell me, what does Usain Bolt use the hundred-meter dash for?” I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to answer. “Nothing,” he said.
In Word Freak, a book about Scrabble, the journalist Stefan Fatsis writes, “Definitions, for the limited purpose of playing Scrabble, don’t matter. One could even argue that the words really aren’t words at all.” They are, essentially, “an array of lines and arcs and circles.” The opposite is true in high-level spelling. Becoming a great speller requires a deep understanding of the union between a word and its meaning, and mastering language this way can be revelatory. Consider Marcel Proust’s narrator in Swann’s Way, who, as a child passing by church steeples, finds the right words to describe what he sees, and is so delighted that he starts to sing. To be a great speller is to know how to name the world.
Later, Mirle told another spelling dad what I’d relayed to him about the question of purpose. “No, no, no,” the man said. He turned to me with an apothegm at the ready. “As Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘Everything you do is insignificant, but you have to do it.’ ”
Just before one o’clock, a list of the twelve Senior Spelling Bee finalists was revealed. Smrithi was on it, but Naysa wasn’t. Phase 3 would be judged by Mirle, with Kavya pronouncing the words. I followed Nihar to the lecture hall, and we settled in near the front. Onstage, Mirle ran through the contest rules. “This is all about how we get you trained to do well at Scripps,” he said. “That’s the whole point.” The spelling began. Brachylogy.
Two boys found seats to Nihar’s left: his cousin and another speller friend. The friend asked if we knew the longest word in English: pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (“a pneumoconiosis caused by inhalation of very fine silicate or quartz dust”). “That’s a really easy word,” Nihar said. “Everyone knows that word.”
“I’m going to get a participation award,” the friend said.
“Everyone wins a participation award,” Nihar said. “It means nothing.”
Nihar’s cousin laughed. “Nihar’s a thug,” he said.2 Nihar whispered spellings in my ear (smaragdine, levanter, salicetum, caliga). Yeah, Nihar was a thug. Nihar was the Machine.
2 The word thug comes to English from India and the Hindi word thag. During the nineteenth century, British colonizers encountered a gang called the thugs, who were said to have strangled thousands of people. Captain William Sleeman, tasked with expunging the thugs, went after nearly 4,000 of them and, after a slew of convictions and executions, declared the problem resolved. Recently, some historians have questioned the narrative of the thugs, believing that the colonists greatly exaggerated the whole thing.
But in the third round, the Machine faltered. A word was pronounced. Nihar, as he’d been doing, leaned over and spelled it for me before the contestant onstage did: “P-R-O-G-E-N-E-T-R-I-X.” The word was defined as a “female progenitor.” “I think it’s an i,” I told him, extrapolating. Progenitrix. I was right!
Yet my delight — the has-been’s thrill at scoring a point against a better, younger player — evaporated when Nihar explained his error. “I got confused with genetrix,” he said. Genetrix? I’d never heard of such a thing. (It means “mother.”) Spellers often claim that they don’t compete against one another; they compete against the dictionary. It occurred to me that Nihar hadn’t gotten progenitrix wrong. The dictionary had.
Jairam came into the room and sat to my right. Nihar leaned across me and caught him up: Smrithi and her archrival, Ananya Kodali, were still onstage. Both girls were from the suburbs of Dallas, which is considered the country’s toughest spelling town. One theory among spelling families is that this is the result of the many well-educated Indian housewives living there: Dallas has America’s seventh-highest concentration of Indian immigrants, and the low cost of living and cultural norms of the South mean that many Indian mothers with advanced degrees stay at home. In 2015 and 2016, at the Dallas regional competitions for Scripps, Ananya had come in second after Smrithi, each time after an intense standoff, so despite being one of the best spellers in the nation, Ananya had never gotten a chance to go to the finals. She, too, was entering high school, so she’d never make it.
Manaca, tathagata, epiphloedal, hypophyge. By the top of the sixth round, only Smrithi and Ananya were left. “Smrithi versus Ananya 2016,” Jairam stage-whispered to Nihar. The boys were rooting for Smrithi, mostly, it seemed, because she was their friend from Scripps. Gokul walked into the room. “He’s going to give us luck,” Nihar said. But Smrithi stumbled on her next word, cryptolaemus.
She still had a shot if Ananya made a mistake. Ananya got her word: acathisti, and spelled it with a k. “Smrithi, you have a chance, don’t mess it up,” Nihar said under his breath.
Smrithi’s next word: stigmonose. “S-T-Y-G-M-A-N-O-S-E,” she said. Nihar’s jaw dropped. He shook his head. The bell dinged.
Ananya was up. Glacé. She hesitated, and then: “G-L-A-C-E.”
This was not the Scripps National Spelling Bee. There was no confetti, no tall, blond interviewer rushing to the stage for a gleeful chat with Ananya. Smrithi stepped off the stage, and then Ananya did. Their families congratulated them. Then Mirle Shivashankar moved on, calling up past Scripps champions for a panel discussion called Meet the Pros.
Later, Ananya told me that her victory had been bittersweet. “Of course I’m like, ‘I won! That’s crazy!’ ” she said. But she seemed a little deflated. Her spelling career was over. And though she’d just experienced the biggest validation she would ever get of her commitment to spelling, she would never be able to try her skills in the big leagues. “It’s gone,” she said. “It’s gone.”
The afternoon was fading into evening. I ran into Jacob Williamson, who was apoplectic that glacé — an embarrassingly simple word, he felt — had won Ananya the championship. It is generally recognized that the words used in the North South Foundation Bee aren’t as challenging as those in its new rival, the South Asian Spelling Bee, an upstart created in 2008 by Rahul Walia, an advertising executive who is several decades younger than Chitturi. Walia runs a marketing firm specializing in reaching South Asian Americans and came up with the spelling bee, operated within his company, as a way to make inroads with his target demographic. Last year’s competition was sponsored by MetLife and aired on an Indian TV station owned by Sony Pictures, which may account for the highly challenging words — more nerves, more drama. The word list is created by well-paid professionals, whereas Chitturi relies on Mirle Shivashankar for his. Another difference is the prize: Chitturi has been offering his winners a $1,000 scholarship; Walia’s champions have gotten $10,000.
At the last South Asian Spelling Bee, held days before the N.S.F. finals, the winning word was zubrowka. Many kids have started to participate in both bees, but there’s tension between them, and I could tell that Chitturi disdained Walia’s style. “We focus on learning,” he said, “and they focus on winning.” Sriram Hathwar, who has participated in both bees, told me, “Some Indian spellers, I won’t name names or anything, they’ll go for the South Asian Spelling Bee or the Scripps Spelling Bee because there’s money involved, there’s TV.”
When I spoke to Walia, he didn’t dispute this assessment. He appreciated it. He said that he deliberately reaches for high-stakes fanfare. Of the North South Foundation, he went on, “They are coming from a very defined ideology, which is, ‘Okay, it’s not just about spelling. Everyone should come, participate, and contribute, and everything that we raise we’ll give to charity’ — which is a great thing to do, but it comes with its own set of challenges, which is that it lacks professionalism and glamour.”
Spelling has gotten much more competitive since my time. The words are harder; today’s top spellers need to master much of the dictionary. “I’ll be honest with you,” Nihar’s father, Narayana, told me. “If you don’t know a hundred fifty thousand to two hundred thousand words, you can’t win the spelling bee.”
There are different schools of thought on the matter of difficult words. The toughest often break the rules of spelling. A definition will make a word sound as if a particular root should be used, but that will be a fake-out. Or the language of origin will suggest that the letters should flow in a particular order, but that will be wrong. Or the word will be an obscure homonym. Knowing these particular words requires rote memorization. In such cases (as in progenitrix), a deep understanding of language can work against a speller.
Mirle Shivashankar disdains trickiness for its own sake. But if Mirle is a prototypical coach, interested in imparting skills that lead to success, Jacob Williamson is a prototypical fan. He’s in it for the spectacle. What makes a spelling bee great, from his standpoint, is what makes any sport great: wipeouts, showmanship, incredible feats of talent. Spellers these days are better than any who have come before, he told me, and bees need to evolve in order to remain challenging. “There are eras in everything,” he said. “This is pretty much the golden age of spelling.”
I stepped outside to get some air. In the courtyard, parents sat slumped on benches, and kids monkeyed around lazily on a bike rack. The trash cans were overflowing with crushed Styrofoam takeout boxes. A big orange stain bloomed on the ground where someone had spilled vegetable curry. I found Balu Natarajan, the guy who, in 1985, became the first Indian American to win Scripps. Natarajan is now a bald sports-medicine physician with eight- and ten-year-old sons who compete at N.S.F. He has the rare experience of having been both a speller and a speller’s parent. “If you ask people who love to swim if they loved swim lessons when they first started, they’d probably tell you no, they hated it,” he told me. It’s a parent’s job, he explained, to push past that point. “You shouldn’t force them, but you should keep it engaging.”
One of his sons ran over, and Natarajan tousled his hair. I asked the boy whether he knew about his dad’s spelling championship. He looked at me as if it were the dumbest question he’d ever heard. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s how I got into it.” That he’d chosen to become a speller seemed the result of some parental magic that is particular to immigrant communities like ours.
Back inside, Phase 3 of the junior spelling bee was beginning, with Kavya as the pronouncer. The children onstage looked small and fragile. By grown-up standards the first rounds were easy — autopsy, bevy — but then, in the third round, came a curveball. “H,” Kavya said. The contestant asked for the definition. “The letter h,” Kavya replied. There were titters from the audience. The kid onstage started spelling: “A-I-T-C-H.” I cringed. Clearly he’d overthought it. I waited for the bell to ding.
But it didn’t. Remarkably, the spelling had been correct: aitch. I couldn’t believe it. How had I gotten through two years as a speller without knowing aitch? How had I gotten through thirty-four years of life without knowing it? And did that mean that the other twenty-five letters in the English language had beautiful, strange spellings, too?
The rest of the junior spelling bee passed in something of a blur. I can relay, though, that the winner was Vayun Krishna, a nine-year-old who’d been spelling competitively since the first grade. “I kind of felt both happy and strange,” he told me afterward. “I never won a national anything before.”
In second place, after a spell-off, was a little girl in a flower headband named Sujata Choudhury. Sujata’s mom told me that they’d learned about N.S.F. from friends whose daughter participated. “We went over to their house, and the first thing we saw was lots of trophies,” she explained. “We said, ‘Wow, let’s make our daughter do this.’ ”
I asked Sujata if her recollection matched. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of trophies,’ ” she confirmed. Then I inquired as to whether she had a favorite word.
“Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,” she said. Her mother added, “It’s the longest word in the dictionary.”
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