The Spelling Bee and the Power of a Network

In 1985, Balu Natarajan became the first South Asian American to win the national bee. Rageshree Ramachandran then won in 1988. It wasn’t until 1999, 11 years later, that another Indian American, Nupur Lala, won. Since 2008, all the champions have been Indian American (until this one).

I participated in the National Spelling Bee in 2001 and 2004. Back in 2001, there were 248 spellers and it wasn’t obvious that an Indian would win. In fact, in 2001, Rediff wrote ‘Indians throng, but fail to win Spelling Bee.’

There are many theories on why Indian Americans dominate the bee today: well-educated parents who arrived on the 1990 H-1B visa, hubs like Dallas where South Asian American families congregate and share tribal knowledge, the rise of spelling bee coaches and tech-enabled resources, the training provided by ancillary bees such as the North South Foundation (NSF) Bee and South Asian Spelling Bee, the visibility of the first Indian American winning in 1985. Some theories are even outlandish: Indians succeed because they mastered Vedic mnemonic devices.

But what if you don’t need to be Indian American to win the bee? Erin Howard, one of the eight co-champions this year, is proof. What you need is what you’ve always needed: access to bees, an interest in dedicating your time to prepare, and investment in tactical spelling resources — coaching, books, and software. For the past few years, Indian Americans have excelled at all three. (These very three ingredients might also be why East Asian Americans dominate the ‘Stuyvesant test’ and make up 75% of Stuyvesant High School.) But that doesn’t mean that future Indian Americans will share this interest, or that others can’t succeed. The network effects, however, are certainly in place.

So how did the stereotype even begin? I began with patient zero, Natarajan, now a doctor in Chicago. Natarajan had all three: access to a local spelling bee in Chicago, an interest due to a mother obsessed with English, and spelling bee study materials due to a hustler father.

“I remember being five years old and going to my friend Michael’s grandma’s house for Thanksgiving dinner,” Natarajan shared. His mother made him write a report on it. Natarajan’s mom was the niece of an English professor in India and cared about syntax, grammar, and spelling. Back then, the local newspaper would print the entire bee word list for regional bees. Natarajan’s mother would quiz him on the words, which led Natarajan to win his local bees.

After Natarajan made it to the national bee in 1983 for the first time, Natarajan’s father started playing bad cop. “My dad was the guy who would throw me off the trail, make me...dissect the words in unfamiliar situations. He was making sure when I got a hard word, it didn’t rattle me.” His dad learned to do this by watching the national bee live.   

Natarajan’s father would call up people that he met at each of the national bees to get old word lists. “They’d have a ’61 and ’62 and ’63 word list. And we’d trade. We’d give them a ’78 and get a ’62,” Natarajan reminisced.

Natarajan made it to the nationals in 1983, 1984, and 1985. In 1983, of 137 spellers, there were only six Indian Americans, Natarajan said. He won in his third appearance — many winners have been to nationals at least once before — and became the National Spelling Bee’s first South Asian winner.

“After winning, so many community organizations were calling and asking, ‘can you please come and speak?’” Natarajan said. Even at that young age, Natarajan realized that he had become an ambassador. “In very short order, I learned, this was important to the community.” He was asked to be the pronouncer for the first 1993 NSF spelling bee, founded by Ratnam Chitturi, an immigrant from Andhra Pradesh, India.

When I sat down with Alabama native Howard, I saw that she, too, shared these three ingredients to bee success. She had early access to spelling bees, an interest in studying because of early success, and sophisticated study materials.

In second grade, Erin participated in her first school bee at the suggestion of her teacher; she won and went on to place third in the county. The early success helped fuel her interest. Access to bees can’t be taken for granted: while Erin was in the bee circuit, the number of Alabama schools participating declined. So Erin petitioned the school board and, today, 100% of the district’s schools participate.

By 2019, Erin was at nationals for the fourth time, and her studying methods had become more sophisticated. “During the first few years, I just tried to build up my base of language patterns,” she reflected. “As time went on...I was able to devote more time to learning the crazy words more likely to trip spellers up, because they don’t follow any language patterns.”

She also learned about resources from fellow spellers. In sixth grade, Erin made it to the last few rounds of Scripps but misspelled a word participants later told her was in Words of Wisdom. She promptly bought the book, written by a former national bee participant. By her final appearance, her dad had created a program to make it easier to pull dictionary words into Excel.

Now that Howard has won the bee, she hopes to spend more time returning to her early passions. “I get to read now. I get to read words strung together in sentences rather than alone.”

Today, Natarajan’s success has been part of the reason so many South Asians are interested in participating.

Aisha Randhawa, one of the top 16 spellers this year, said, “[Indian-Americans have] been inspired by past winners.” Added Krishna Kodali, whose son Abhijay was a co-champion this year and placed third the year before: “Once you see it on TV, you say ‘yes, we can do it.’” That’s how his eldest child, Ananya, got interested to participate and then win the NSF bee; she placed second in Dallas in 2016, when the city sent only one speller to nationals.

To maintain interest, success has to feel achievable. Ananya Balachander, a 12-year-old from Ashburn, Virginia, did her first bee in third grade at NSF, but then took a break. “I lost interest. If I didn’t get results really fast, I’m not happy with myself,” she said.

“If the kids are not interested, they will never do it,” said Kodali, whose other son is more interested in soccer than spelling.

Access to the national bee has increased with RSVBee, a new program in its second year. It allows spellers who have won school bees or previously spelled at nationals to apply for a national bee spot without qualifying via traditional regional bees. This has made competition stiffer by expanding the national bee from 291 spellers in 2017 to 515 in 2018 to 562 this year, of whom around 20% were South Asian American.

Programs like RSVBee and ancillary bees outside the formal bee network, like NSF and the South Asian Spelling Bee (SASB), give spellers multiple shots at practicing to win nationals. NSF and SASB specifically allow spellers younger than the qualifying age of official regional bees to compete. Like many of this year’s spellers, I started participating in spelling bees through NSF. In third grade, my dad’s friend, a South Indian doctor, had enrolled his daughter; I tagged along. Abhijay Kodali also did the NSF bee for two to three years.

Tribal knowledge also gets passed down, sometimes through physical networks. “Once you start going to spelling bees, you start following the same crowd,” said Chitra Venkatasubramanian, the mother of speller Vayun Krishna. Texas sent 69 spellers this year and Dallas has become a spelling bee hub: Abhijay Kodali won second place at the Dallas bee to make it to nationals. Why Dallas? “There are more South Asians; DFW [Dallas-Fort Worth] has attracted a lot of people and companies; no taxes,” his mother, Sushama Jasti, pointed out. Texas has 10 national spelling bee champions, the most of any state.

Spelling bee kids also form networks of their own. Many attend weekly Google Hangouts and quiz each other — easier to do once you’ve already been to the national bee. In my day, we did this on AOL Instant Messenger. It’s the first time that many spellers have found a large group of peers who share their interests: reading; languages; nerding out in general.

Today, more and more spellers have access to the same resources, from Hexco books and Quizlet to coaches and software. National spelling bee alums, such as Scott Remer, who placed fourth in 2008, also coaches younger spellers and has a book. “What makes ‘[Remer] so effective is that he prepares you for the words you don’t know,” said Tahir Alkhairy; Remer coached his son Dean. “He bans you from memorization.”

Other alums started SpellPundit. “The advent of software such as SpellPundit allowed children across the country to dramatically increase their word banks and that’s what led to this year’s outcome,” said Natarajan, referring to the eight-way champion tie.

Vijay Reddy, whose son spelled at Scripps, started Geospell, a Dallas-based prep academy for geography and spelling bees. Reddy’s wife turned their studying methods into software. Reddy and Geospell Academy helped coach Ananya Kodali, who in turn coached her brother Abhijay.

Stereotypes of Indian American spellers also miss out on the variation in attitudes among them — some like the competition, while others are just happy to be there. “I always wanted to win since I heard about the spelling bee,” said Navneeth Murali, who made it to the final 16 and was a frontrunner to win. Krishna, on the other hand, just wanted to make the top 100.

And not all South Asian parents are super involved in bee preparation. “There’s a fine line between pushing your kids and parenting your kids,” said Alkhairy. His son Dean would prefer playing video games if he weren’t studying for the bee. Krishna Kodali agreed: Abhijay also loves video games.

“I can’t teach my kids football or basketball,” Krishna Kodali added. And thus, the option of spending quality time with one’s kids by teaching them something one might be good at — something academic-oriented — arises.

Natarajan believes the 11 years it took for the next South Asian champion was the natural progression of time. A generation of South Asian parents had seen him and Ramachandran win, and then encouraged their kids. The documentary Spellbound, which chronicled eight spellers in the 1999 bee, including champion Nupur Lala, also helped. “Suddenly, the Nupur story spiked.”

“If you’re capable of doing something, you should attempt to do it. We know as a community [that] Indian Americans can succeed at spelling bees,” added Natarajan. “There’s nothing stopping us from trying.”

At the same time, “You have to want it really bad,” Natarajan cautioned. “Will the next generation of Indian Americans want it that bad to put in that sort of effort?” Natarajan had a frank conversation with his own son, Atman, to figure out if he wanted to keep studying for the national bee.

To get to the top 50 this year, spellers had to spell correctly in live spelling rounds and score well on the written spelling and vocabulary test. Last year’s bee went through 1,185 words to get to one champion. This year, it took around 10 hours to cull the top 50 to the top 16, and to the eight co-champions. Spellers spend the entire year preparing for a national bee.

The bee will likely change many things next year to avoid eight co-champions, whom they awarded $50k each. (In 2004, the top prize was $12k.) What won’t change is the network that allows Indian Americans to thrive.

My theory: tomorrow’s winners don’t have to look like today’s. All it takes is another Balu Natarajan to start the domino effect.

Photos via Snigdha Sur and Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Snigdha Sur is founder & CEO of The Juggernaut. She loves reading novels and always has a pen on hand.

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