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To Ascend a Nunatak

Gokul Venkatachalam

 

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Lights begin to flash, and the collective anticipation of the thousands of spectators and eliminated contestants permeates the large auditorium. Donned in a checkered shirt (with a LeBron James jersey underneath for luck), khakis, and white Legend Blue Jordan 11’s, a short Indian kid from the suburbs of St. Louis approaches the microphone, unaware that this moment in the competition might be the defining one. With millions watching on television and streaming online, tweets from nervous spectators across the world flood social media.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee official pronouncer, Dr. Jacques Bailly, alerts the anxious audience that the next word being given will, in fact, be the last word of the spelling bee, and if the LeBron James aficionado spells it correctly, he will become a co-champion of the 88th Scripps National Spelling Bee.

"Are you ready?” is asked, and is met with no response. The audience laughs. After a few seconds, the final word is pronounced.

“Nunatak.”

Out of the 400,000+ words in the dictionary, the final word comes from Eskimo, a language that only has 28 entries. Luckily, this is a word that the St. Louis kid knows. To the shock of the crowd, he spells the word the second he hears it, skipping the mundane process of asking for the part of speech, language of origin, and definition; dubbed as a risky move by some, but an audacious display of knowledge by others, the whole auditorium erupts in cheers, confetti raining down from the ceiling.

Like any high-profile event, the winning contestant is subjected to a slew of interviews and media coverage. Shows like Live with Kelly and Michael and Jimmy Kimmel Live feature him as a spelling wunderkind. After being whisked away from DC to New York City and then to Los Angeles, the reigning champion is finally allowed respite, driving home to St. Louis, exhausted from spending two weeks eating fast-food and sleeping in hotel rooms.

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The first time I had even heard of a spelling bee was when I watched the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee in first grade. I was perplexed at how middle-schoolers could spell words from Greek and Latin, languages spoken thousands of years ago. At that age, I was already the best reader and writer in my class and had to help my teachers spell difficult words on the whiteboard.

By the end of third-grade, I had already made it to the finals of my regional spelling bee. While other elementary school kids were going on playdates and eating ice-cream, I was burning midnight oil learning word roots and language patterns. Studying for hours upon hours, I reached my first Scripps National Spelling Bee in fifth grade. Surprising most, I rose into the upper echelon of top spellers and secured a 10th place finish in a field of over 250 spellers.

Despite my early success in the spelling bee, continuing that legacy of success would prove to be difficult. Being labelled as “that spelling bee kid” the second I stepped foot in middle school tempted me to find some other hobby that was less nerdy. I started listening to rap music, wearing athletic clothes and playing basketball. Regardless of what I did, the spelling bee was still innate to who I was; whereas before I was “that spelling bee kid,” I was now “that spelling bee kid that is kind of a nerd.”

These small adjustments in my life did not distract me from my ultimate goal to win the spelling bee, however. Even when I had the opportunity to hang out with friends, my mind would wander back to mistakes I made in a quizzing session, or a list I needed to study. Every second that I was not studying was a second that someone else was; I would feel overcome by guilt and end my time spent relaxing early, much to the ire of my friends.

Despite the difficulties of balancing studying and having a social life, I truly did enjoy spelling. Words surrounded me and I found enjoyment in knowing esoteric vocabulary most people did not. Walking through the grocery store and seeing words such as “gewurztraminer” or “chardonnay”, would make my mind would revert to the moment when I first learned those words. From the guttural sounds of German to the formulaic word-root based process of spelling Latin, I felt as if I was learning something meaningful, something that school would never teach me. Like Sherlock Holmes, I uncovered the mysteries of the English language and discovered new ones in the process.

This passion for words began to disintegrate in my last year of competitive eligibility, where the impetus was on learning words to win, not for enjoyment. It was imperative that I spent my time as efficiently as possible, not wasting time learning about the history of words or languages, but instead quickly trying to cover as much pertinent information as possible. Though I felt constrained, the pressure to win outweighed the enjoyment gained from true learning.

After my victory, most people expected me to be jumping for joy; I was supposed to be happy after receiving prize money and a shiny trophy. And I was happy, at times. But more often than not, I was confused. As an introvert, the ostentatious interviews and TV shows made me feel out of place. It was difficult to find enthusiasm when I was repeatedly being peppered with the usual interview questions and had to listen to the drivel of news anchors who did not even bother to pronounce my last name correctly.

Luckily, these interviews ended, but my feeling of confusion did not. Like a retiree adjusting to life without a stable career, I felt as if my life had lost its purpose. Unlike most middle-schoolers, I had a unique, audacious, time-consuming goal that I was working towards. After achieving that goal, I was back to square-one, facing the same challenges most high-schoolers in the nation face: maintaining a steady GPA, adjusting to high-school, and starting to study for standardized testing.

Trying to reach these aspirations did not feel as enjoyable as studying for the spelling bee was. Whereas before I was enjoying learning about why Italian words have double consonants, I felt frustrated wasting time learning about Schrodinger’s law and multiplying matrices. I quickly realized that I would have to rekindle the same inspiration that I had used to win the spelling bee, or else risk proceeding through high school bored and unmotivated.

I eventually found new passions: politics, finance, and debate. Just as I was enamored by the world of spelling and the hundreds of languages I learned, I was enamored by the theories of Machiavelli, Nietzsche, and Camus. I felt the same thirst for knowledge when I was learning about the stock market that I felt when I first learned about Greek and Latin roots. My renewed passion to learn about something that interested me helped dispel the feeling of emptiness and confusion that had persisted since my victory.

It was only when I found these new interests that I realized that my approach to spelling had been completely flawed. Even though I had passion, I was still preoccupied with trying to win rather than trying to learn. With my new passions, there was almost nothing to compete for. There was no prize for learning about economics; I learned about economics because I had a fundamental interest in the world around me and its relation to the basic principles of utility, efficiency, and scarcity.

With this new perspective on learning and knowledge, I began to renew my career in spelling, this time as a coach. As a coach, I demand that my students understand each and every word that they are learning and take active measures to explore the dictionary out of their own curiosity, not to satisfy some arbitrary quota of words to study daily. Replacing the iterative process of memorizing and studying for hours with a holistic approach that emphasizes pattern recognition and legitimate learning has become the mantra that I employ. Winning may be paramount, but it is meaningless if you learned nothing from it.

Each year, the Scripps National Spelling Bee becomes increasingly difficult; the words have become more challenging, and competition has increased, even in the regional levels. It is now more important than ever to emphasize true learning, or else thousands of kids will be wasting their time trying to win a trophy but not learning anything. If you’re winning but not having fun, it’s not worth it.

Eventually, my large shiny trophy will rust, and my spelling bee success will fade into obscurity. Perhaps nothing I achieve in my life after high school will be remotely as interesting as winning the National Spelling Bee, but I will always the memories of being excited to learn new words, and experiencing the ups and downs of a beautiful competition. It’s not the memory of holding a trophy under falling confetti I’ll remember, but the memory of shocking parents and teachers in the audience when I nailed the difficult German word "pfeffernuss" as a third grader. And it's not the memory of being on Jimmy Kimmel Live! or SportsCenter, but the memories of being inspired meeting former spellers who I idolized and asking them for advice.

It's these memories that I will cherish forever.

And it’s these memories that I hope any kid who becomes passionate about any subject or activity will experience, regardless of their success.

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