MICHEL MARTIN, host:
And now to a very different kind of story about this diverse and changing country. In 1985, Balu Natarajan made history.
(Soundbite of National Spelling Bee)
Mr. BALU NATARAJAN (1985 Champion, National Spelling Bee): Milieu. M-I-L-I-E-U.
(Soundbite of applause)
MARTIN: At age 13, he won the National Spelling Bee and became the first Indian-American to claim that title. Now, more than 20 years later, Kavya Shivshankar has become the eighth Indian-American to follow in his footsteps with her victory last week at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. She was one of six Indian-Americans who made it to the finals.
We were curious about why Indian-American children are excelling in the national competition. So we called the man who paved the way. Balu Natarajan is now a sports medicine doctor in Chicago, and he joins us now. Welcome.
Dr. BALU NATARAJAN (Former Spelling Bee Champion): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: I have to admit, though, I think milieu was kind a light way to get the championship. Come on, don't you think so?
Dr. NATARAJAN: For a while there, they were pretty easy. I think the year before that, the winning word was luge.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Okay. Well, how did you get interested in competitive spelling?
Dr. NATARAJAN: A lot had to do with grade school. I had a fourth grade teacher, Ed Ruolo(ph), who used to hold spelling bees in class, and that was actually before the Scripps Spelling Bee had even come to town. So I don't know how often they were, but it felt like we had one every week. And it was pretty exciting, and soon thereafter, Scripps' spelling bee came to Chicago, and it was a pretty natural transition to try and compete in that.
MARTIN: After you won, you gave this piece of advice to future spellers, and I'm sure you're going to be happy to hear your 13-year-old self again. Here it is. Here is the clip of you giving your advice. Here it is.
Dr. NATARAJAN: Try to learn as many of the hard words as they can. Hard words, really all you can do is memorize them. Maybe you can write them a lot or type them on a computer, something like that, something that if you have, say, a photographic memory, you'll be able to remember more easily.
MARTIN: Well yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: So is there a talent, or is it just putting in the time? What does it take to be a champion?
Dr. NATARAJAN: Oh, I think it's a combination of two of those things. You know, now I think the kids and their parents are probably far more deliberate and far more scientific than I was and my family was about approaching it. These kids really seem to know the origins of the words. They know roots very well. They know exceptions to the rules, just the sheer numbers of words that they know based on books that have been written in terms of preparation for competition, the electronic dictionaries, Internet. Information is just more easily accessible, and so they're more prepared, but the standard of the spelling bee has risen as a consequence, as well.
So, you know, as the competition has gotten stiffer, the need to prepare has gotten more important and so the standard has just been elevated as time has gone on.
MARTIN: And as we mentioned, people of South Asian heritage have come to, I think, dominate is fair to say, the competition. Why do you think that is? Do you think you had something to do with it? People saw you and thought, gee, I can do that?
Dr. NATARAJAN: The only thing I'll take credit for is helping to prove that it can be done by someone of Indian-American descent. Really, beyond that, it's the effort put forth by the kids and their families. There certainly is some contribution from other entities. There's a foundation called the North South Foundation that serves the South Asian community, and they have been holding spelling bees since 1993. And it initially started as a means of raising funds for kids who needed education in India, and that has turned into quite the training and breeding ground.
There are a lot of kids who have done well in those contests who have then gone on to the national competition, and some of them have gone on to win.
MARTIN: I understand your parents came to the U.S. from India just before you were born. Did your victory have any special meaning to them, or were they just glad you didn't want to dye your hair purple and pierce everything?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. NATARAJAN: I'm sure they were glad of that, but of course it meant something to them. And it meant something to them not just because I had won but really it was a family effort that was put forth. There were many, many days that my father took off of work to help me prepare. My mother was the primary person who was coaching me. And you know, she grew up in a family where English was extremely important. Her uncle was an English professor in India.
So this had special meaning for the family, but beyond that, we learned how special it was. We were pretty - we still are pretty involved in our Indian community. And right after the '85 spelling bee, in the following year, a new temple was built in Chicago, and I would mention my name to people and random individuals at the temple would say, wait a minute, isn't that the name of some guy who won the spelling bee last year?
MARTIN: So you are a rock star without the purple hair?
Dr. NATARAJAN: It was just embraced by the community, and that's what really taught me quite a bit of, you know, we were part of this huge community and if somebody did something, then that meant that either the community was proud of it or the community was feeling responsible for it, if it was something negative. So that taught me that, hey, I better, you know, wear this hat appropriately and represent this community well.
MARTIN: Just briefly, we only have about a minute left, but the Times of India did a piece about Kavya's win, and the headline, the lead is: There was an air of inevitability as yet another precocious middle-schooler of Indian origin won the U.S. National Spelling Bee Championship for 2009 on Thursday night, extending a decade-long run in which Indian-Americans kids have won the title seven times out of 10. You ever worry that this is, I don't know, too much ethnic pressure in a way, it's become inevitable? Is that fair maybe to your kids? You have two now. Are you worried about it?
Dr. NATARAJAN: If my kids want to compete in it, they certainly are more than welcome to. I don't think I'll push them. There are probably some families where the kids are pushed, but you know, for all of us we have to decide what we have to pursue and what we're not going to. And I think as it shakes out, those who are going to do well will pursue it, and those who are getting pressured will eventually figure out how to get out of it.
MARTIN: Well 24 years later, congratulations to you.
Dr. NATARAJAN: Thanks much.
MARTIN: Thank you. Balu Natarajan, Dr. Balu Natarajan, won the National Spelling Bee in 1985. He was the first Indian-American to do so. He's now a sports medicine doctor in Chicago. Thank you so much for joining us.
Dr. NATARAJAN: Thank you for having me.