Nupur Lala has had a lot on her mind this month. For one, she just wrapped up her second semester at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. Then there are the calls from reporters that usually come around this time of year, checking up on what her fans always expected would be a brilliant career. And of course, each spring Nupur gets mash notes from middle school kids, who gush that she inspired them to undertake one of the greatest challenges of their young lives.
Nupur might find all of this attention annoying—and indeed, there was a time in her life when she tried to keep a low profile—but she has since come to enjoy her role as perhaps the biggest celebrity in the small world of competitive spelling.
“Around May, I always think back to when I was a speller,” Nupur says. “It was easily one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.”
It’s been 16 years since Nupur, then a gawky, bespectacled 14-year-old from Tampa, won the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. She’s one of dozens of living winners—the competition dates back to 1925—but thanks to Spellbound, the hit film that followed her and seven other regional champions from around the U.S. through the 1999 competition, Nupur is by far the best-known. Released in 2002, the movie went on to rake in an unprecedented $5.7 million and earn an Oscar nomination for best documentary. It changed not only Nupur’s life, but the National Bee itself, turning an old-fashioned demonstration of a neat but useless skill into a competition that attracts fans from far beyond the ranks of people who read dictionaries for fun. In fact, this year’s contest, which takes place from May 24 to 29, is expected to attract a million viewers when the final rounds air live on ESPN.
“Spellbound was one of the first unheralded documentaries to do well at the box office,” says Kenneth Turan, the longtime film critic for the Los Angeles Times. “The key was the appeal of the kids and the universality of spelling bees… And it sparked a whole genre, a series of documentaries that followed its path.”
Like 2005’s Mad Hot Ballroom and other competition-themed films that came after, Spellbound owes much of its success to the charm of the eight very different children from across the country that the filmmakers chose to follow. In addition to Nupur, the daughter of an Indian-American computer science professor, they were Angela Arenivar, whose parents were undocumented immigrants from Mexico; Ashley White, who lived with her single mother in Washington, D.C.; Ted Brigham, a quiet boy from rural Missouri; April DeGideo, a working-class girl from small-town Pennsylvania; Emily Stagg, a privileged horse-lover from Connecticut; Neil Kadakia, an upper-middle-class Indian American from California; and Harry Altman, a hyperactive jokester from suburban New Jersey. But Spellbound’s enduring significance extends beyond these compelling kids. The film is also an allegory for the American Dream—and as such it has a lot to tell us about the promise (or is it a myth?) that, in this country, all you need to succeed are pluck, confidence and hard work. But looking back now, in the 13 years since the film came out and 16 years since the Bee itself, the weighing of the factors that led to each contestant’s success, be they personal or societal, is muddled. How did these eight students fare in the world since 2002, and if their fate in the Bee was shaped disproportionately by their social class, did that continue on through to today?
Director Jeffrey Blitz still seems a little surprised by Spellbound’s success. Fresh off the set of his new comedy, Table 19, he paused to consider the legacy of his first full-length picture, which, along with making its young subjects famous, made his career in Hollywood.
“The National Spelling Bee seemed like a kind of blank slate that each speller, each family, would project personal meaning onto,” he says. “For some, it felt like a more purely personal quest. For others… success in the bee suggested more directly a bigger kind of cultural success, a mastery of an American way of life. From the start, the idea that America itself would be represented by kids trying to conquer the unconquerable seemed pretty compelling. It’s such a pure distillation of one strand of our culture.”
In 1931, the historian James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream as “a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable.” His book, The Epic of America, may have popularized the term, but the dream dates back at least to the Declaration of Independence, with its invocation of equality and the pursuit of happiness. And since the early days of the Republic, it has been entwined with education, an achievement for which the ability to spell well served as a proxy—at least before spell-checking software came along.
“Growing up in New York City, I thought spelling was a marker for ‘smart,’” admits Steven Cohen, a Tufts University historian who has used Spellbound to spark discussion among his undergraduates in a course on the history of American education. Cohen’s mid-20th century schooling involved so many spelling tests, he says, that he figured those who did well had to be the best and the brightest. But when he became a high school teacher himself, he realized that highly intelligent people could also be poor spellers. And that made him reconsider his understanding of what, exactly, “smart” means. “We say it all the time,” Cohen says, “but when you think about it, you realize it’s a hard thing to define.”
We may think of Bee-level spelling chops as a talent that a lucky few are born with and can cultivate through sheer willpower. But Cohen argues that Spellbound actually reveals the crucial role social class plays in each speller’s chances of winning—and by extension, the importance of family background, privilege and upbringing in who gets the best education, who goes on to succeed in life and whom we consider “smart.”
Cohen can be brutally frank about his reading of the film. “You know, for sure, that Ashley, the African-American kid, there’s no way she’s going to win,” he says. “It’s not that Ashley doesn’t do the work, but there’s a level that people who are really prepared for the national stage reach, and she does not.” The film portrays Ashley’s working-class single mother as warm and enthusiastic, but Cohen argues, and the film lays this out, that she was not able to offer her daughter the support—a book-filled house, coaching and help with memorizing words—that a well-educated upper class parent could have provided. Cohen’s estimation of how Ashley would do as soon as the film introduced her was accurate; she was eliminated on the first day of the Bee (on the word “ecclesiastical”).
In the three-year gap between the time that the Bee occurred and Spellbound premiered in theaters, Ashley moved into a homeless shelter as a teenage mother. With financial support from people who read about her plight in the Washington Post, Ashley (who declined to be interviewed for this story) later graduated from Howard University and earned a master’s degree in social work. ** UPDATE, 6/1/2015: After reading this story, Ashley White responded to our story. Read her comments here. ** In many ways, her story proves Cohen’s point; Ashley had the talent and brains to build a successful life, but she faced obstacles that other contestants, such as Emily Stagg, never had to worry about.
With the benefit of distance Emily recognizes that, at 14, she “didn’t have half a clue” other spellers were not as positioned for success. “I remember in the film there was this conversation about whether we were going to bring the au pair,” Stagg recalls with a laugh. “At the time, that seemed like a totally normal conversation to have!”
After the Bee (she placed sixth, going out on “clavecin,” a synonym for “harpsichord”) she went straight on to college and graduate school, earning a degree in nursing at Yale. Today she is a psychiatric nurse practitioner, working with children at a Connecticut hospital.
While Emily credits her privileged upbringing in part for her success at the Bee, Angela Arenivar, who left home in rural Texas for the first time to compete in the National Spelling Bee, sees from her own experience that social class can be overcome by the drive to succeed. Although she was stymied by “heleoplankton,” she sees competing in the Bee as, in a way, one rung on the ladder to the better life she has today.
“My parents didn’t have money to send me to college, but even from a young age I knew education was the way to advance socio-economically,” Angela says. After Spellbound, she went on to work as a high school Spanish teacher before beginning a PhD program last fall in Hispanic studies, with an emphasis on Spanish linguistics. “Even to this day, I can’t stop striving,”
“I’m really proud to be an American,” she says. “My parents took a risk, they came to the U.S. They wanted to us be independent and carve out our own lives.” That risk paid off, she attests, and it has convinced her to put little stock in the idea that poverty, inequality and prejudice can hold people back against their will. “I take a no-excuses approach,” she says. “I think it’s all up to the individual, at the end of the day. It goes back to drive and passion. But that’s just me. Other people see it differently.” Cohen, for his part, is one of them. To him, “the American Dream is more myth than reality – although it’s a powerful myth.”
For most young Americans the impact of class extends far beyond how they might do in a spelling bee. The achievement gap between rich and poor students and between whites and children of color is universally recognized as the greatest challenge facing public education in America. Although there is little agreement on how best to bridge that divide—some education reform advocates argue for increasing the number of charter schools and providing poor students with vouchers to attend private schools, while others say governments must devote more resources to traditional public schools—it is impossible to ignore certain harsh realities. In 2013, for example, the high school graduation rate was nearly 87 percent for white students, but just 73 percent for students from low-income families, about 71 percent for African Americans, and 61 percent for students with limited English proficiency.
But while some might have overcome longer odds than others, all of the spellers featured in Spellbound went to college and for the most part all have built satisfying careers. (The sole exception is Ted Brigham, who died in 2007 while he was attending medical school; the cause was not reported.)
April DeGideo’s dog-eared dictionary was a memorable visual in the film, and it served her well—she tied for third place, eliminated on a misspelling of “terrene” (“of the Earth”). April went to New York University, then worked in publishing and as a paralegal. She recently had her second child and is considering law school, something that might have seemed out of reach for the daughter of a former asbestos factory worker. “I’d never been in a situation where you feel like you’re the smartest kid in the world,” she says, of her days as a speller, “and I wanted to feel that all the time after I got a taste of it. I think I’m a good example of how if you work hard enough you can do whatever you want.”
Neil Kadakia, whose grandfather paid 1,000 Indian villagers to pray for him to win (it didn’t work; he misspelled “hellebore,” a type of flower, in the sixth round), did not respond to messages, but social media profiles indicated he graduated from the University of California-Berkeley and is now vice president of a real estate company. His father was perhaps the film’s biggest cheerleader for the American Dream, declaring at one point that in America it is “impossible to fail” if one works hard enough. There is value in striving for something difficult, the elder Kadakia told his son, because the experience of giving it your all translates well to other endeavors. That is something nearly all of the Spellbound kids, today well into adulthood, agree with—and it’s an idea that has recently become a big deal among people who care about education in America.
In 2007, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth published an influential paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, in which she presented the findings of a series of investigations into a personality trait she called “grit.” People with grit are persistent, they work toward their goals and bounce back quickly. The grittier you are, Duckworth wrote, the more successful you tend to be—and grit predicts achievement even better than IQ or socioeconomic status.
Duckworth has dedicated her career to studying grit in action, and thus it seemed inevitable that her inquiries would take her to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. In a 2010 paper, Duckworth and colleagues—including the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, father of the popular theory that mastering anything requires 10,000 hours of practice—surveyed 190 finalists from the 2006 Bee and found that those who exhibited the most grit studied the most and did the best. That year’s winner, in fact, spent five years preparing, often working long hours by herself to memorize obscure words.
“Our investigation,” Duckworth and her colleagues wrote, “suggests that this young victor’s flawless march through the words tmesis, izzat, kanone, aubade, psittacism, recrementitious, clinamen, hukilau, Shedu, towhee, synusia, cucullate, terrene, Bildungsroman, chiragra, Galilean, and gobemouche in the final competition was made possible by tremendous passion and perseverance for the long-term goal of becoming the best speller in the nation.”
Of course, not every child (think Ashley) has the time and resources to work long hours preparing for a spelling bee—some otherwise able spellers might be caring for siblings or even working paid jobs to help their families pay the rent. Critics of the grit narrative, among them many educators, have argued that promoting stick-to-itiveness as the true key to success ignores the structural barriers posed by poverty.
And of course, sometimes a spelling bee is just a spelling bee. Harry Altman, the skinny sixth-grader who in Spellbound grimaced memorably through every spelling word until he was eliminated on “banns,” graduated last year with a PhD in math from the University of Michigan. He says his performance at the Bee was more about innate intelligence than drive or passion. “It was really just relying on my mind’s ability to spot patterns and extrapolate from that,” he says. “I wanted to compete and have fun, and it was fun.”
Whatever spurred Nupur Lala to glory in Spellbound—grit, brains or simply a competitive streak—has continued to serve her well, including as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, during a stint as a research assistant at MIT and in graduate school at the University of Texas, where she studied cancer biology. “I think especially now in medical school, where you have to study an extensive amount every single day, it’s been extremely helpful,” she says. “I was always a pretty good speller, but I think becoming the type of speller that would do well at the National Spelling Bee required me to work even harder. I think if you’re good at something, to get really, really good at it is even harder than to be bad at something and become competent.”
But that lesson—and how to spell her winning word, “logorrhea,” (defined as “excessive talkativeness”)—are not the only ones Nupur learned. In the several years between the filming and release of Spellbound, she came to understand something else.
“Having watched Spellbound, I realized that several of my competitors weren’t any worse than me ability-wise, but they didn’t have the same advantages—economic privilege, educational background, family dynamics,” she says. “I know that played a big, big role in my success. As a 14-year-old, I really thought I was one of the best spellers out there. In hindsight, I think, yeah, I was a very good speller, but I also had some of the best preparation and resources out there. I had a mom who had a graduate degree in linguistics. Parents who have literally hundreds of books in the house, and who were very motivated to help me succeed.”
It’s a nuance that the film, despite its adherence to the outlines of the American Dream, portrays well, Nupur believes. “I think that it shows very sensitively and gently that not everybody coming to the Spelling Bee had an equal shot of winning,” she says. “But I think that’s much more apparent to more mature viewers than to younger kids. I think part of Spellbound’s magic is that kids in elementary or middle school, at the age at which they’d be eligible for the spelling bee, can watch it from the vantage point that I had as a speller, which was, ‘If I have a dictionary and determination, I could win the National Spelling Bee.’ I think there is something really wonderful in that, where all you’re focused on is this sense of possibility. That’s something I don’t want to ruin in little kids. But at the same time, I almost want to have them watch it later in high school and realize that not everybody coming in has the same chance to win. There are forces bigger than a 13- or 14-year old."
UPDATE, 6/1/15: Ashley White responds
When Smithsonian caught up with the kids from the acclaimed documentary “Spellbound” last week, an important voice was missing: Ashley White, the spunky 13-year-old from Washington, D.C, with boundless optimism and a “photographic memory.” Ashley, now 29, contacted us after the story ran to update us on her life since the 1999 National Spelling Bee.
Despite Tufts historian Steve Cohen’s observation that she “didn’t have a chance” at the championship, Ashley says that she got something else out of her Bee experience. “I still had an opportunity to go further than the other kids in my city,” she says. “It takes courage to stand in front of hundreds of people to compete. It’s part of who I am and has played a major role in the person I have become.”
Ashley may have worked harder than some of her peers, but thanks to what (echoing Angela Duckworth) she calls her “grit,” she has built a successful life, working for the District of Columbia Department of Human Services, where she helps families transition off public assistance to become self-sufficient. She is studying to become a mental health clinician and preparing to buy her first home.
“I love my career, my trade and the fulfillment I receive from improving outcomes for the most vulnerable populations in my hometown,” she says. “This teen mom was still tenacious, ambitious and destined for success… I will always be looked at as a heroine for beating the odds [and] dispelling myths.”