You know those phenomenal spelling bee kids who dazzle us on ESPN every year and make us all feel inferior because we don’t even know that “cymotrichous” is a word, let alone how to spell it? We hear about how they go on to elite colleges — to Harvard or MIT or Stanford — and they become molecular biologists or software gurus or brain researchers.
My hero? A District woman named Ashley White, who took a very different path after competing as a 13-year-old in the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee and then becoming a star in the 2002 documentary, “Spellbound.” When the movie came out, she was a pregnant teen living in a D.C. homeless shelter. But she didn’t get stuck there.
White’s strength, resilience and heart make her story one every fan of the spelling bee should hear. Because after her spectacular, against-all-odds run in the bee, then her precipitous fall, she’s done something remarkable with her life. No, she’s not an investment banker or a patent lawyer. She is a 28-year-old, Howard University-educated social worker who devotes her days to inspiring D.C. women stuck in the same depths of despair she once knew.
“There is hope,” she tells them. “There is triumph in trials.”
In “Spellbound,” the award-winning film that helped make the bee a national obsession, White was the underdog, bounding down the sidewalk past some of the city’s toughest inner-city projects, confident, vivacious with a photographic memory, a brilliant smile and absolutely no willingness to acknowledge the crushing odds against her.
With cameras following her, friends and family cheering her on, and the excitement of a national competition swirling all around, she had a ball before being knocked out in the third round by the word “ecclesiastical.”
By the time the film came out in 2002, things were very different, though. She had been crushed by the odds, falling into the cycle that devoured her mother and grandmother, aunts and cousins before her. She was a pregnant teen.
“I wasn’t a heroine anymore,” she says. “I wasn’t this young, vibrant, intelligent little girl. I was just a ‘Spellbound’ star who fell from grace.”
While the kids she competed with during that sparkling week in 1999 were heading to New York University or the University of California at Berkeley, White was bouncing from couch to couch, eventually landing at Covenant House, a homeless shelter for teen moms.
People who saw the film found her, The Washington Post profiled her, and soon she was buoyed by their help and faith. In 2004, she watched the movie again.
“That’s when I decided, you know, I was going to be that little girl who everybody looked up to and got an inspiration from again,” she said. “I’m going to college, I’m going to be that fantastic person. It reminded me of who I was and who I was destined to become.”
While living in that shelter, she banged out 18 units a semester and still went to work. She graduated from Howard in 2008, then again in 2012 with a graduate degree in social work. She has been a motivational speaker for teen moms at Children’s National Medical Center and various nonprofit groups across the region.
“You’re considered a statistic. The likelihood of being successful is diminished in society’s eyes, and you have to defy and debunk the myth,” she tells them. Just like she told herself: “Stand up, and do not be marginalized.”
She has a powerful voice, a fantastic laugh and a confident manner, honed on that scary, national spelling bee stage. Infected by White’s success, her mother and sister both just received their bachelor’s degrees this month from the University of the District of Columbia, and her aunt went back to school to get her high school diploma and is in her second semester of college.
White's daughter, now 10, is eligible for the spelling bee. But that’s not what she likes. She’s artsy and crafty and athletic. As White waits for her outside the Southeast D.C. Tennis Center, where her daughter is a ferocious player, her 2-year-old son works out his energy on the playground. It’s near the end of another long day as a single mother.
She planned to watch the spelling bee on ESPN on Thursday night, if she could stay awake long enough. She tries to watch every year. And it reminds her of that terrified, adrenaline-rush feeling on stage, how exhilarating and frightening it all was.
And she cries. Not just when someone spells a word wrong, but when she can sense on that screen the emotional fortitude, determination and grit that had just been forged in a nervous little tween body, illuminated by flood lights, watched by millions of eyes. Just like her, 15 years ago.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.