Feature

The secret lives of spelling bee champions

There's a reason certain kids dominate the Scripps National Spelling Bee, says Ben Paynter in Slate — they work out the kinks in "minor-league" bees

"Indian-Americans make up about one percent of the U.S. population," says Ben Paynter in Slate, so what explains the "Indian-American dynasty" at the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee? One factor has been role models — each champion has inspired the "next wave of Indian spellers." These days, Indian kids look up to last year's champion, Kavya Shivashankar, 13. Kavya "found her bee mojo" after watching Spellbound, a documentary about the 1999 Scripps contest won by Indian-American Nupur Lala. And before Lala, everyone wanted to be like Balu Natarajan, who in 1985 became the first Indian-American champion at Scripps. But the real secret is the North South Foundation, a sort of minor league spelling-bee circuit for Indian-Americans that has become a training ground for spelling superstars. Here, an excerpt:

"These minor-league competitions help kids as young as 6 years old work out the spelling kinks at an early age...

"This year, an estimated 30 NSF-ers will compete at Scripps, 11 percent of the 273-kid field. Recent winners include Sai R. Gunturi from Dallas, who nonchalantly reassembled pococurante for a national title in 2003. Sameer Mishra from West Lafayette, Ind., nailed guerdon in 2008. And four-time finalist Shivashankar made it back-to-back titles for North South Foundation competitors last year, air-writing Laodicean for the win. If Shivashankar hadn't come through, it's possible another North South graduate would have: Four other NSF kids cracked the top 10 behind her...

"The competitions, which began in 1993, function as a nerd Olympiad for Indian-Americans..."

Read the full article at Slate.

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