The XX Factor

You Never Forget Your Last

Ann, the Spelling Bee makes me squirm too , sometimes. But it also makes me want to jump up and down-kind of like those hyperactive contestants-and squeal, because I love spelling bees so much.

Maybe I’m culturally wired for it: As the Washington Post noted on Tuesday, spelling bees have a special place in Indian-American nerd culture. (“In the same way that Hakeem Olajuwon’s success in the NBA inspired a generation of Nigerians to take up basketball, Sidharth, Sameer and Kavya can trace their roots to Balu Natarajan of Chicago, who in 1985 became the first Indian-American national bee champion.”) I’m still not really sure what quirk of cultural evolution we owe this to, but seven of tonight’s 11 finalists seem to be of South Asian descent-including my girl and fellow Miller Junior High Mustang, Ramya Auroprem. (Class of 1994 has your back, R!)

I get why Stefan Fatsis at the Daily Beast feels the televised finals are exploitative , and maybe I’ll feel differently when I make the leap over to the other side of the parent-child divide. But at the moment I feel a lot of pride and excitement, both as a former nerdy kid and as an immigrant’s child. As the great documentary Spellbound made clear, for a lot of people-not just South Asians-participating in the the Bee can be a kind of shorthand for achieving the American dream.

Spelling bees are also something I always connected not just with childhood, but specifically with girl hood. Maybe that’s just because I happened to meet my best friend-also an Indian girl-when she beat me in the 6th-grade district bee, or because my local spelling nemesis was a boy (also Indian) whom I simultaneously had a wild crush on. But I know that when I saw Spellbound, I remember wishing that I could have seen Nupur Lala, the girl who would go on to win, when I was young enough to have her as a role model. Lala was a smart girl who wore her brains lightly, never apologizing for her gifts-or the eccentricity of her chosen playing field-but always managing to seem … well … cool. Collected. (And of course, when she says in the documentary trailer , simply and plainly, “You don’t get any second chances in India, the way you do in America,” I bawl. EVERY time.)

They say you never forget you first, but spellers never forget their last. Echelon , my losing word in the 6th grade, is forever burned into my brain. (I added an s , thinking it was Germanic.) I feel pretty certain we have plenty of former competitors in the Double X readership-care to share your spelling bee flame-outs?

Photograph of Kavya Shivashankar by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images.