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The Sandbox

Maybe I find the Scripps National Spelling Bee so entertaining because of the cultural connection. It is the Desi Hunger Games, after all, a streak that began when Nupur Lala won in 1999; an Indian-American has won the Bee 10 times in the last 14 years. This year, the career tributes didn’t disappoint—after two days of fighting to the [orthographical] death, Snigdha Nandipati, another Indian, won, and the top three contestants were all Indian. Take that, District 12!

Spelling resonates with me, even though I’m not particularly good at it myself. My excited “Spelling bee, ya’ll!” Facebook status was a testament to that. It turns out that “ya’ll” is actually spelled “y’all”; who would’ve thunk? Sometimes, though, my fallacies are committed on purpose, because “hai gaise!” is so much more effervescent and exciting than “hi, guys.” Still, I’d venture to say that this wouldn’t be a very good strategy for the National Spelling Bee, and thankfully the career tribute Indians understand the importance and beauty of putting each letter in the right place. And they’ve done me proud; every time I watch the Bee, I glow with pride at what my genetic heritage has produced.

It’s not like there isn’t anything else to watch. In fact, the Spelling Bee generally airs around the same time as the NBA playoffs. Last year, the final round took place at the same time as game two of the NBA finals—you know, that game where Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry made a breathtaking comeback, leading the Mavericks to victory over the Heat. That comeback was right after Sukanya Roy correctly spelled “cymotrichous” to win the competition, despite not having wavy hair herself. It was a pretty magical night. This year, the Bee aired at the same time that the Spurs lost to the Thunder in Game Three of their Western Conference Finals, ruining a 20-game winning streak. That was less magical, mostly because I was rooting for the Spurs. There was no Dirk Nowitzki, and the Spurs probably could have benefited from him.

The Bee could have benefited from Dirk as well—there are always some gnarly words of German origin that trip up some of the best contestants. “Schwannoma” and “schwarmerei” were some notables this year, eliminating third- place finisher Arvind Mahankali and second-place Stuti Mishra, respectively. They were off, of course, by only one letter. Dirk probably would have been pretty good at those German words. Maybe, in addition to a championship, the NBA should have a spelling contest. Dirk would definitely make it to the final round, but I can’t imagine Lebron correctly spelling “schwannoma,” can you? Or Dwyane Wade—whose parents, apparently, did not know how to spell “Dwayne.” Anyway, all this German hullabaloo gave 14-year-old Snigdha Nandipati the chance to correctly spell “guetapens” (French origin, thankfully), winning prizes valued at $40,000—twice the amount Mark Cuban tipped the bar after the Mavs won the NBA finals.

Part of why the National Spelling Bee is so darn compelling is that these kids are basically Olympians in their own right. They’ve been actively spelling things—from road signs to ingredients of cosmetic products—since they were toddlers. Some have been to the Bee multiple times (you qualify until you’re in eighth grade); some have even made it to the finals. To prepare, kids like six-year-old Lori Madison, the youngest ever to compete, had her mother shout words at her while she jumped on the trampoline (she was eliminated in the third round, on “ingluvies.” She said she got too excited. She’s also six.). Before ninth grade, these kids have already achieved that kind of impeccable discipline that will make them incredibly successful later in life.

Most captivating were the varied ways the contestants reacted to the most high-pressure of situations—it is the Desi Hunger games, after all. Some veterans of the Bee, like Nick Rushlow, were relaxed at the microphone, approaching with a nonchalant “sup” and cracking jokes. Some were sassy, asking pronouncer Jacques Bailly: “Definition, please. Language of origin, please. Spelling, please.” Others, like Jamaica’s Gifton Wright, the only international speller in the semifinals, were impressively classy, giving a polite, “Thank you, sir,” to each of Bailly’s comments. He finished in fourth and received a well-deserved standing ovation.

There was no fainting this year, like Akshay Buddiga in 2004 (he recovered and spelled his word correctly). There was no bursting into adorable giggles after getting a funny word, like Kennyi Aouad did with “sardoodledom” in 2007. But there was Lena Greenberg (who eventually tied for fourth with Gifton). Every time she received a word—“cholecystitis,” for example—she wore an expression that looked as if she were just asked to disarm a nuclear bomb. She gulped, she gasped for air. Her mother was shown in the audience with her face in her hands. It was more drama than the second season of Downton Abbey. But then, miraculously, she’d spell the word correctly. Lena would shout and yell and jump in sheer joy—and, 257 miles away, so would I.

And if all of that is not more exciting than Lebron sailing through the air and landing a high-flying dunk to clinch a victory, I don’t know what is. The Scripps National Spelling Bee rules, even if it doesn’t make you spell better through viewer osmosis. I can only hope it encourages everyone to learn to spell better than Dwyane Wade’s parents did.

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