For nearly 20 years, a series of unflappable Indian American kids have owned the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Some spectators, agog at the winning streak, wonder: What are their parents teaching them? What are they doing differently?
As an Indian American, I’m more ambivalent about the bee. When they’re 30, I wonder, will these kids wish that they’d played soccer instead?
Because I do.
The contest, which concludes Thursday, now regularly stirs up an occasionally ugly examination of why the winners are so often these studious children of immigrants.
“When the other kids are playing football or basketball, the Indians are doing spelling,” the contest’s 2002 champ, Pratyush Buddiga, recently told The Washington Post. That’s a wild generalization, but to some of us, it rings true.
Spelling bees — which I see as the rote memorization of words by kids far too young to understand their meanings — were never my thing. But I was certainly tiger-mommed into academic achievement.
Growing up in the Maryland suburbs, I was shuttled to math camp and required to explain every lost test point. I spent my summers hunched over an early personal computer, bought at great expense, my parents informed us, so that my brother and I could have one more academic advantage. We used it to bang out weekly book reports in the summer while our friends perfected their cannonballs in the neighborhood pool. (Major disadvantage, Mom. Major.)
A clarification here: I was nowhere near as brilliant as Pooja Chandrashekar, the remarkable Virginia girl who won admission to every Ivy League school this spring. I did, however, manage to skip second grade and speed through college in little more than three years. My master’s degree in journalism arrived in my parents’ mailbox a couple of months after I’d turned 23, by which point I’d already raced off to New York to start my career. (For the record: No, they are not disappointed that I’m not a doctor.)
By then, I’d already begun to realize what I’d lost in the bargain. At 18, I had no choice but to lug myself and the 15 pounds I’d gained my sophomore year at the University of Texas to the gym for the first time. (Yes. Ever.) As I ran laps around the indoor track, I figured out that the physical activity was great for melting away stress, not to mention my newly acquired gut.
Playing sports can help teach kids healthful habits that last into adulthood. A 2008 survey by the Women’s Sports Foundation also found a connection between participation in organized sports and academic achievement, not to mention improved self-esteem.
When Twitter trolls batter some of these spelling champs because of their brown faces, doesn’t it seem wise to gird them with a reserve of self-confidence?
Sports are “where children learn to cope with many important realities of life,” Sally S. Johnson, executive director of the National Council of Youth Sports, told me. “They learn leadership skills, personal character development, how to belong to a team.”
Team sports teach kids to applaud teammates’ successes and help them shake off failures, Johnson explains. Spelling and calculus, tennis and other individualistic pursuits don’t teach teamwork. They might, in fact, be teaching some of these children to see others as the competition, to secretly hope for their failure. It’s probably no coincidence that schadenfreude — the joy you get from the failure and embarrassment of others — is listed among this year’s Scripps competitors’ favorite words.
When I landed in the workplace, I incorrectly assumed that my intellect would be enough to succeed. Then I watched as others simply played the game better. The women who lettered in soccer, softball and cheering respond to failures and setbacks as if they’re made of Teflon. They forge alliances like it’s “Survivor.”
Indian American parents are catching on. I know children who run cross country and are on intramural ski teams. My nephew, who just finished kindergarten, regularly dons an adorable purple jersey and feebly kicks around a soccer ball a few times a month with kids of all nationalities. Every team they play against, my brother, Chandar, tells me proudly, has a couple of Indian children on it. It’s a big change.
There are more high-profile examples, too: This spring, University of Maryland basketball player Varun Ram became a trending topic on Twitter when his moves on the court led the Terps to a win. Brandon Chillar played for the Green Bay Packers, and the 7-foot-5 Sim Bhullar made waves for a time on the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. He’s described as the league’s first player of Indian descent.
My brother tells me that one of the big challenges for Indian parents is that they’ve had no exposure to the sports their kids want to play.
Football? Soccer? Increasingly, however, they’re seeing sports as key. “It’s fitting in and staying fit,” he says.
On a recent FaceTime call, I asked my nephew if he was enjoying soccer. He paused for a minute, unsure how to answer. “You’re having fun, right?” his mom prodded him.
He knew what he was supposed to say, but he couldn’t help himself. “It’s not fun if you don’t win,” he whispered, much to her chagrin.
I was beaming. It was a classic response — a little bit Indian, a little bit American.