What Happens To Spelling Bee Kids? Years Later, The Prize Is Perspective NPR tracked down former top spellers to see how they're faring, decades after their early successes.

What Happens To Spelling Bee Kids? Years Later, The Prize Is Perspective

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. This week, the stakes are high for some of the best competitive spellers as they take part in the Scripts National Spelling Bee. ESPN broadcasts the contest live with tens of thousands of dollars in cash and prizes and millions of people tuning in. For the students in the competition, it's an experience they won't forget. NPR's Elise Hu tracked down some former top spellers and she sent this report.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: They come from all over the country.

KARLA MILLER: And I was just this girl living on a farm. My only coach was my mom.

HU: And like Karla Miller, they come prepared.

MILLER: We spent hours drilling on words. It was just the two of us and the spelling bee book and a huge dictionary.

HU: The kids who qualify for the national bee are as young as six, but no older than 14. Karla Miller was 11 in 1984 when she first made it to nationals, a big enough deal to get a profile on the local news.


HU: The others didn't do too terribly, out-spelling Karla in the fourth round.

MILLER: And if you spelled your word incorrectly, there would be this moment of silence and then you'd hear ding and then it was like this mile-long walk to get to the end of the stage.

HU: Now, nearly three decades later, Karla's back inside the old ballroom of Washington's Capitol Hilton for the first time since she last competed.

MILLER: I remember the echo, that big, cavernous echo.

HU: The word she missed that year, matriculate.

MILLER: I can spell it now, M-A-T-R-I-C-U-L-A-T-E.

HU: In the same cavernous ballroom in 1988, then 13-year-old Raga Ramachandran found herself among the last two spellers standing. It's been 25 years, but she remembers every detail.

RAGA RAMACHANDRAN: So I spelled (unintelligible) correctly, but it's like tennis where you have to then win an additional point in order to win the whole thing. Then, the pronouncer, he gave me the word elegiacal.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Elegiacal. Elegiacal.

RAMACHANDRAN: I would see the word in my mind. Elegiacal. And then I would spell it. E-L-E-G-I-A-C-A-L. Elegiacal. It was just pandemonium. They have this beautiful trophy that's ready to go and I got to hoist this loving cup trophy. It's just so exciting. I'm getting shivers thinking about it.

HU: It's a moment hundreds of national qualifiers dream of. Srinivas Ayyagari, like many top spellers, credits his family for his early success, especially his mom.

SRINIVAS AYYAGARI: We worked together. We were definitely like a team because I think, you know, it's true of a lot of immigrant children, you know, the parents bring them along, but they also bring along the parents in America, too.

HU: Ayyagari never got to hoist the winner's trophy, but he came so close, finishing in third place at nationals twice, once in 1992, again in 1994.

AYYAGARI: That was first year ESPN covered it and the lights were incredibly bright and it sort of changed the dynamic up there in terms of just atmosphere.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes, the head goes down and he was searching when he asked for pelican and it was so...

AYYAGARI: And seeing, like, somebody from ESPN commenting on your style and strategy was bizarre and weird, so it's the closest I'll ever get to being, you know, an athlete.

HU: Not content to stop with just one brainy pursuit, Ayyagari went on to Harvard for college, Penn for law school and Jeopardy for the win.


HU: He's taken contract jobs on and off for the last year, but today, Ayyagari is searching for full-time work in Washington. It's one of the most competitive markets for lawyers. But because of his early experiences, he's used to the tough competition.

AYYAGARI: There's something there that got lit at a very young age about pushing myself against the best and feeling like I had a reason to do that.

HU: The 1988 champ, Ramachandran, is a pathologist at UC San Francisco. More than two decades since spelling on stage, she says the bee taught important lessons about effort and luck.

RAMACHANDRAN: If I had gotten a different word, if I had been spelling in a slightly different order, I might very well not have won.

HU: Regardless of where they placed, the former spellers say they came away with performance poise and appreciation of hard work and a love of language. Karla Miller is still working with words today, writing the weekly work advice column for the Washington Post magazine. And every so often, she's reminded of her days as a competitive speller.

MILLER: To this day when I hear that bell, again, I get that little frisson, the little shiver, when I hear that bell and thinking, oh, I failed at something. And then I realize, no, somebody's order has come up.

HU: Decades later, they've each won a valuable prize, perspective. Elise Hu, NPR News, Washington.

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