The journey to the Scripps National Spelling Bee typically begins at the local level, where students compete in school and community spelling bees. Winners of these contests move on to regional competitions, which serve as qualifying rounds for the national stage.
Once at nationals, they pushed through three rounds before making it to the final round. Through each stage the field of spellers gradually narrows until a select few spellers make it to the Championship Finals.
The climax of the Bee, the Championship Finals, brings together the most outstanding spellers who have successfully navigated the previous stages. The finalists compete on stage, spelling increasingly difficult words in an elimination-style format. Each speller takes turns, and one by one, they are eliminated until only a few remain.
I was first introduced to this spelling bee in a 2002 documentary called Spellbound. It was one of the rare instances where a documentary focused on kids my age and I was entranced by the various stories of the contestants. The level of dedication to honing this very specific skill was intense.
I never personally competed in a spelling bee (beyond a classroom level) but I did end up working on the game Words With Friends for a number of years while at Zynga. Somehow the South Indian calling to be surrounded by competitive wordplay worked itself out.
Spelling bees have become synonymous with the height of intellectual competition. They showcase the morphological prowess of participants as they battle to spell words correctly. This thrilling academic pursuit has a captivating history that spans across different countries, evolving over centuries.
The roots of modern spelling bees can be traced back to the United States. In 1825, the first documented spelling bee took place in Massachusetts, organized by the Boston-based "Society for the Promotion of Good English." However, it was during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that spelling bees gained significant popularity in American schools. These competitions created a platform for students to enhance their vocabulary and spelling skills while fostering a culture of competitive learning.
In 1925, the National Spelling Bee was established in the United States, marking a turning point in the history of spelling bees. Organized by a nonprofit organization, the competition initially took place at the regional level, with winners advancing to the national stage. Over time, the National Spelling Bee grew in prominence, attracting participants from all corners of the country. The event began to garner significant media coverage while winners gained recognition and prestige.
Spelling bees transcended American borders and began making their mark on the global stage. In 1908, the first international spelling bee occurred when the United States hosted representatives from Canada. Inspired by this event, Canada established its own national spelling bee, known as the Canwest CanSpell National Spelling Bee.
Other countries soon followed suit, organizing spelling bee competitions that celebrated linguistic abilities and promoted vocabulary enrichment. Countries such as India, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa developed their own national spelling bees. These competitions, held at various levels, from local to national, fostered healthy academic competition and provided platforms for students to showcase their language skills.
In modern times, it also has become one of the few nationally televised competitive events in which Indian Americans have outsized prominence. It started in 1985, when Balu Natarajan became the first child of Indian immigrants to win Scripps. This sparked an interest in the community that has strengthened and grown to this day.
Previous Indian American champions, such as Nupur Lala (1999 winner) and Anamika Veeramani (2010 winner), have become icons and role models for aspiring spellers. Their achievements have motivated many Indian American children to pursue spelling bee participation and strive for excellence.
Since 2008, a South Asian American kid has been named a champion at every Scripps bee. This year, two-thirds of the semifinalists were of South Asian descent, and at least nine of the 11 finalists are of South Asian descent.
I grew up watching Sportscenter and continue to look forward to the day when I see more Indian American representation on the daily top 10 highlights. While I wait for that day to come, I proudly watch the bee highlights on ESPN every year.