During her childhood, one of the authors of this review received a Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. While seemingly a simple gift of one book, it was actually a munificent presentation of more than 165,000 gifts (there are over 165,000 entries in the dictionary). These words, each an adventure in orthography and etymology, are at the heart of a very American experience—the spelling bee. This experience has evolved from its humble origins in one-room schoolhouses across the United States to an annual sporting spectacle hosted by the Scripps National Spelling Bee and televised internationally by ESPN.
For a host of reasons explored by Shalini Shankar in her compelling and comprehensive book, Beeline, the Indian-American community has repeatedly produced Bee champions, creating a template for a new generation of academic success. This template has at its foundation a three-legged stool: deliberate practice, growth mindset, and true grit.
Full disclosure: the aforementioned author – Anupama – had the good fortune of studying with Professor Shankar at Northwestern University. Anupama’s senior thesis, with Shankar as advisor (a gift whose munificence has had an indelible impact), was titled “Devon Desis and the American Dream: Achieving Success through Education and Transitional Residence in Chicago’s South Asian Neighborhood.”
Another disclosure: Please note that all the headings in this article are from the 2019 Scripps Spelling Bee list; definitions are courtesy of Webster’s; and one of the words is misspelt in the header with the correction at the end of the review. Would you like to guess which word it is?)
A-N-T-E-C-E-D-A-N-T: (an·te·ced·ant); a preceding event, condition, or cause
The Scripps National Spelling Bee did not appear out of thin air; and neither did the success of Indian-American spelling champions. Both have antecedents, which Beeline describes in considerable detail.
According to Shankar, spelling bees have their origin in a political act of independence. They “developed as a result of many factors linked to a freshly emerging United States after the Revolutionary War. A newly formed nation needed a language of its own, with uniform rules. The US Spelling Reform Association was assembled for the explicit purpose of creating spellings different from British English.” Shankar continues with this fascinating history lesson couched in cultural anthropology: “Spelling bees have been part of America’s history for at least a few centuries. They are both curious vestiges of past educational urgencies and legitimate competitions in their own right, commanding community-level, regional, and national audiences.”
Since the eighteenth century when their popularity was established in New England, to the 19th century expansion into the Midwest and westward to California, to 1925 when the Louisville Courier-Journal hosted the first National Spelling Bee, to 1941 when Scripps-Howard assumed sponsorship, the bees have evolved quite a bit.
Indian-American spellers joined the competition in the late twentieth century, with Balu Natarajan emerging as the community’s first national champion in 1985. But the spelling bee’s essence has remained fundamentally unchanged: hear a word, repeat it, perhaps ask for a definition, spell the word, and then repeat it. Also unchanged during the time of Indian-American champions have been the “educational urgency” and “community-level” involvement, with highly invested immigrant parents conflating spelling with academic excellence. Organizations such as the North South Foundation and the South Asian Spelling Bee soon cropped up with the specific intent of grooming Indian-American kids for the Bee.
Since Balu’s breakthrough, 20 other South Asian children have won the Scripps National Spelling Bee, with a seeming stranglehold over the past 14 years. Just as it is quite likely that the Golden Gate Warriors will win another NBA championship, given the Bee’s trendline, chances were high that the 2019 spelling champion would be a child of Indian ancestry. See the end of the story for the final results this year.
Of course, as with any competition, the charm is the suspense of not knowing what will happen in Washington D. C., where the Scripps Bee is held in late May or early June every year. Who will win? Will there be co-champions? Which word will trip up the penultimate speller? Which word will be spelled by the champ? All interesting questions for those who like competitions.
But the key question that Shankar probes in Beeline is “What makes kids want to become elite spellers?”
Shankar leverages popularized scholarship which postulates that regardless of whether one is a spelling champion or a basketball superstar, elite performance is enabled by these three attributes:
- Deliberate practice
- Growth mindset
- True grit
In some ways, the sporting life is a terrific antecedent for spellers, whom Shankar calls “neuro-athletes.”
P-H-A-L-A-N-X: (pha·lanx) an organized body of persons
Like an army’s phalanx, the Indian-American community of spellers has been organized to move forward and win. And just as troops march in lockstep for hours on end every day, spellers practice deliberately almost every day, often with parents serving as coaches (or in a less flattering mode, as drillmasters), and sometimes with each other across different time zones. With an ecosystem of competitions to keep them structured, Indian-American spellers have a well-worn path to the Scripps Bee in Washington D. C.
But regardless of how well the route to success is laid out, deliberate practice comes from within. In “Outliers: The Story of Success,” Malcolm Gladwell suggests that a “10,000-hour rule” is at work to become an expert. That would mean that like Steph Curry who has practiced shooting baskets every day for decades to be the finest three-point shooter in NBA history, Balu Natarajan must have been self-motivated to spend countless hours of his childhood on spelling to be at the pinnacle of the Bee.
In many ways, Balu, an early Millennial (those born between 1981-1996), was a harbinger of the generation that Shankar focuses on in Beeline. This book uses the Spelling Bee to highlight how so many members of Generation Z (born after 1996) have become experts by developing what seem like childhood careers. Interestingly, demographics suggest Gen Z will be the last American cohort with a white majority.
L-O-B-E-L-I-A: (lo·be·lia) plants having terminal clusters of showy lipped flowers
Some might say that the lobelia is a perennial flower that has a growth mindset. With a little bit of sun and moist soil, it yields clusters of spectacular red flowers that attract the attention of humans and hummingbirds. The lobelia is hardy and doesn’t really require a hothouse for successful blooming.
While this type of botanical growth is most certainly not what Stanford professor Carol Dweck had in mind when she wrote “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” there are some parallels. Dweck writes that “If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.” Shankar extends Dweck’s research in Beeline: “Growth mindset leads spellers to view less-than-perfect results as a challenge rather than failure.”
So even if you don’t have a green thumb, just know that like spelling, which requires one to be comfortable with misspelling, gardening actually requires a “brown thumb.” This means that you have to be willing to have a plant wither to encourage you to push your hands into the earth and aerate the soil for better growth. We imagine that Professor Dweck would consider this rather good parenting philosophy as well.
T-R-E-N-C-H-A-N-T: (trench·ant) vigorously effective and articulate
People with true grit let their actions speak for them. And when they do speak, their trenchant observations have others stand up and take notice.
When you think about it, spelling champions don’t say much; but when they speak, the audience in the hushed auditorium listens carefully. Champs say a word, spell it, and then repeat the word for good measure. They are vigorously effective and articulate, with “quit” being the only word that is apparently not in their vocabulary.
The subtitle of University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Lee Duckworth’s Grit is “The Power and Passion of Perseverance.” It explains what kept Curry going when his ankle injuries might have had a less gritty athlete give up on professional basketball. He didn’t complain about the unfairness of having weak ankles; he just doubled down on his physical therapy and emerged with what is likely to be a Hall-of-Fame career. This same sort of perseverance is vital in spelling where there is only one child left standing on the stage with the trophy; occasionally there may be two co-champions, but there are thousands of other spellers who have to decide whether to try again the following year or quit; given that almost no one is a champion in their first year, elite spelling is not for the faint-of-heart quitters. Ananya Vinay, the 2017 Bee champ exemplifies this type of grit; not surprisingly, after her big win, she gave a shout out to her hero, Steph Curry.
Those with true grit may never find themselves in ESPN’s spotlight on winners, but they have what Shankar suggests is an inner belief that “propels people to persevere in an activity, despite setbacks and even failure.”
C-H-I-V-A-L-R-O-U-S: (chiv·al·rous) marked by honor, generosity, and courtesy
Towards the end of her book, Shankar recalls a chivalrous meeting with Kevin Negandhi, the Indian-American anchor of ESPN’s SportsCenter as well as previous host of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Their interaction captures the tone of Beeline; it is marked by honor, generosity, and courtesy. Shankar conveys that “Negandhi has the camera-ready looks befitting a news anchor, with an ease and affinity for banter that also makes him likeable.” The anchor’s perspective on the Bee reflects the author’s point of view: “Negandhi believes the Bee has become a place that showcases talent of young people, the importance of self-presentation in the media, and a public portrayal of what it means to be Indian American without that being the only thing that matters…. He told [Shankar], “I am very proud to break stereotypes and humanize any of these kids, not just the Indian American ones. None of these kids are robots, they are all well-rounded human beings.’”
That said, Beeline suggests that some dedicated parents of these privileged children may not be as well-rounded: many Indian-American fathers and mothers (especially self-sacrificing mothers) are “willing to do whatever was needed to succeed in the competition.”
Desi Land, Shankar’s first book, provided a more balanced view of young Indian-Americans, including those children who don’t fit into the “model minority” stereotype of the academically high-achieving and socially integrated Indian-Americans profiled in Beeline. These are children of so-called blue-collar parents who don’t have the luxury of dropping work “down to four days a week,” as one physician in Beeline did, so that she could support her two boys who would go on to become Bee champions.
But given how the professionalization of childhood has changed since Desi Land was published a decade ago, perhaps it is understandable that Beeline’s focus is on higher-achieving youth. And perhaps we can return to a more chivalrous appreciation of Professor Shankar’s vital research on immigrant impact on Generation Z’s path to success by quoting Balu Natarajan, the first Indian-American Scripps National Bee Champion, on his hopes for his son, Atman, as they prepared for the 2018 Bee: “If nothing else happens, my son will walk away from this saying, “I worked hard for something, I achieved being able to get here, I bonded with my family, I learned a bunch of material, I showed respect to my coach. Those are all life’s huge lessons.” Huge lessons for spelling champions and the rest of us.
Shortly after midnight in Washington D. C., this year’s Bee made history with eight co-champions. Among these spectacular spellers was Rishik Gandhasri, a 7th grader from San Jose who made it to the final round by spelling “nyaya” in Round 16 (definition: an orthodox philosophical system in Hinduism dealing primarily with logic and epistemological analysis). As the chivalrous moderator Dr. Jaccques Bailly said to the epistemologically elite eight, “You are the most phenomenal assemblage of spellers in the history of this storied competition…You are showing this dictionary who is boss.”
Anupama is a middle-school teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District and earlier this year gave birth to Eshni, perhaps a future speller. Rajesh is an organization change consultant and believes that Eshni’s parents, grandparents, and great grandparents serve as a-n-t-e-c-e-d-e-n-t-s of immigrant success.
BEELINE: WHAT SPELLING BEES REVEAL ABOUT GENERATION Z’S NEW PATH TO SUCCESS. By Shalini Shankar. Basic Books, 2019. 309 pages.