There were no streams of confetti when the winner spelled her final word at the North South Foundation spelling bee. Unlike the glamorous Scripps National Spelling Bee, no trophy was handed out. The top 12 spellers faced off in a lecture hall with seating for 200, not a ballroom with space for thousands. When competitors missed a word, they didn’t retreat to a “crying couch” to commiserate with their families and do TV interviews before an audience of millions. They just shuffled off stage and sat in the crowd. Instead of $45,000 in cash and prizes, the winner got $500.
Yet it’s likely that next year’s National Spelling Bee champion spent a Saturday in August at the North South Foundation’s national finals.
The last dozen winners of spelling’s biggest prize have been Indian-Americans who share more than heritage. Every single one has participated in bees staged by the nonprofit foundation, which was launched in 1989 to raise scholarship money for poor kids in India.
Among the many reasons for Indian-Americans’ dominance of spelling, perhaps none is as important as the training and competitive experience they get from the foundation, where many participants start as early as first grade.
The foundation organises one of two national spelling bees exclusively for kids with South Asian heritage. “The National Spelling Bee is the major leagues. We’re the minor league feeding into the major leagues,” NSF founder Ratnam Chitturi said.
He launched the spelling bee as a way to serve children of Indians who immigrated to the United States. Now the foundation also has competitions in other subjects, including math, science, vocabulary, geography, public speaking and essay writing. The last five winners of the National Geographic Bee also honed their skills in NSF competitions.
But they are not open to children without Indian heritage. Chitturi said he fields one or two requests a year from parents who seek to enroll children of other ethnicities. The all-volunteer organisation simply lacks the resources to host bees for everyone, he said.
More recently, another high-stakes bee has emerged: the South Asian Spelling Bee, which launched in 2007 and has its national finals every year at Rutgers University in New Jersey. It carries a substantial cash prize - $10,000 for the winner - and some spellers believe the words are even tougher than those used at the National Spelling Bee.
Paige Kimble, the longtime executive director of the National Spelling Bee, said she has not heard any complaints that Indian-Americans have an unfair advantage because they come up through the minor-league bee system. Two decades ago, she fielded questions about whether home-schooled kids had an edge, a controversy that has largely faded.
“We heard far more concerns then about fairness, and we just don’t hear that now,” Kimble said. “What I would say is the edge goes to the individual, regardless of heritage, who works the hardest.”