When the Scripps National Spelling Bee was canceled in March, two former competitors from The Woodlands stepped up to organize a virtual bee. Now, other bees are following suit.
Holothuriidae. Bonduc. Bembicid. Foeniculum. Shourav Dasari swivels his desk chair to face a computer monitor and begins scanning an enormous Excel spreadsheet, a cascading list of the spellings and roots of all 475,000 words in the dictionary. Eurygaean. Diapir. Ballonne. Carrageen. Shourav, a champion speller from The Woodlands, estimates that he knows 98 to 99 percent of the words in the English language. In Spelling the Dream—a new Netflix documentary that follows Shourav and other Indian American spellers through the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee—his friends and fans boast that he’s “the Michael Jordan of spelling.”
Spelling bees have long demanded an intense level of practice and study, and Texas’ sharpest kids are stepping up to compete. Last year, three of the eight co-champions at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the biggest spelling event of the year, hailed from Texas. This year, 11 regional champions from across the state qualified for the Scripps finals in Washington, D.C. They never had the chance to compete: Due to COVID-19, the bee was canceled for the first time since World War II.
After the Scripps competition was called off, Shourav, now 17 and retired from the spelling game, and his older sister Shobha, another former competitive speller, decided to host a virtual bee in its place. A score of students who had been planning to participate in the Scripps bee shifted gears to the virtual competition, which took place on Zoom and Facebook Live during the last week of May.
Shourav told the Observer that he especially hoped to reach eighth graders, the students for whom the cancellation was most devastating, since eighth grade is the last chance to compete in the Scripps bee. “It’s kind of a way to give back,” he says. “But it wasn’t a full-on replacement.” From meeting fellow spellers to the adrenaline rush of competing on stage, the national spelling bee carries experiences that can’t be replicated on Zoom.
Over the past 35 years, Indian American kids have become a significant presence at spelling bees. Twenty-six of the last 31 winners of the Scripps bee have been Indian American. “Other immigrants, primarily Indian parents, say that it was 1985 that put the national spelling bee on the map for Indians,” says Balu Natarajan, that year’s champion and the first Indian American winner. Soon enough, spelling had become an arena where Indian American youth saw themselves, and many found the confidence to dive into the competitions themselves.
After Shourav competed in the Scripps bee in 2017, he and his sister launched the startup SpellPundit to help other contestants prepare, offering up the same word database he’d created to study. The site is a one-stop resource for studious spellers, including a feature that sorts words according to difficulty—which came in handy when the Dasari siblings constructed a spelling bee from scratch.
In the recent SpellPundit bee, 280 students—about half the number that would have competed at Scripps—vied for a $2,500 prize sponsored by The Juggernaut, an online publication focusing on South Asian stories. Once the participants had completed the first round, Shourav spent hours grouping spellers by competency and preparing more than 1,000 words by varying degrees of difficulty for the semifinals and finals. It turned out that the Excel sheet, built for students, was useful for the judges too. The Dasari family ran the recent virtual bee out of their home in the Woodlands. Shourav and his dad, Ganesh, facilitated the semifinal rounds in the study while Shobha and her mom, Usha, ran the rest of the competition in the dining room.
The rules remained approximately the same as other bees, although Zoom competitions require more reliance on the honor system. Spellers were expected to hold their hands up in the frame to minimize any risk of cheating; if anyone lowered their hands absent-mindedly, Shourav firmly yet kindly reminded them to raise them. Established Zoom etiquette applied: Everyone stayed on mute until their turn to speak. At the end, when New Jersey speller Navneeth Murali won, no one could hear anyone else clapping until a younger speller asked if it was okay to unmute.
Fellow Texan speller Harini Logan, 12, tied for second place. “I guess it was a bit different in this bee,” Harini says about the experience of spelling a word correctly during the event. “Usually you would be happy, walk back to your seat, and with the lights and the cameras and everything, you’d be like, ‘Yes!’ … On SpellPundit, you still had the same sense of victory, just not as elaborate.” Harini competed from her family’s office room in San Antonio, while her parents and grandparents distracted her 4-year-old brother from bursting in.
“Everyone is adapting,” says Vyji Bharadwaj,the director of WishWin, an educational organization that hosts practice spelling bees. She says the enthusiasm that spellers bring to in-person events translates to virtual competitions. Based in Dallas, WishWin is Indian American-led, volunteer-driven, and has the dual goal of supporting academic excellence in kids in the U.S. and in India.
The Dasari siblings have joined Bharadwaj to co-host another online bee in September, a practice competition for Scripps hopefuls in 2021. The silver lining of spelling bees moving onto Zoom, Bharadwaj speculates, is that more people may participate since they don’t have to travel to do so. Her nonprofit regularly hosts “Spellathons” in Dallas: “Since Scripps got canceled this year,” she says, “I think the kids are raring to go.”
The national spelling bee was founded in 1925 by nine newspapers to promote literacy, and the focus on coming together to learn rather than compete has served kids well, online and offline. “You’re not competing against other spellers,” Logan says. “You’re competing with other spellers against the dictionary. So it’s sort of like a group effort.”
There’s a moment in Spelling the Dream, 10 days before the Scripps bee, in which then-eighth grader Shourav is swiveling in his desk chair to review his database one more time. “It’s kind of surreal, I guess,” he says, “because I’ve been doing it for so long.” He started spelling in second grade, after being enlisted as the family pronouncer to help Shobha study. “[Now] it’s kind of like, just do all you can, because in 10 days you’ll be done with it.”
Ten days later, Shourav was eliminated from the national bee when he misspelled Struldbrug (a word from a Jonathan Swift novel). Yet he wasn’t done after all—three years later, his skills and database have taken on new life. “All the hours we put in for spelling, making the lists and preparing, I guess it’s kind of nice that it pays off in a different way,” Shourav told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s fulfilling to be able to give other people access to a really good resource.”
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