W-I-N-N-E-R! Desi Kid Wins Spelling Bee, Again

13-year-old Sameer Mishra spelled “guerdon” correctly to win the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee. The word, rather wonderfully, means “something that one has earned or gained.” Champion!

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Sameer was a crowd favorite throughout the tournament. When told one of his words in the semifinals was a dessert, he deadpanned: “That sounds good right now.” He rolled his eyes and muttered “wonderful” when told that one of his words had five different language roots. He once asked “Are you sure there are no alternate pronunciations?” In another round, he uttered “That’s a relief” after initially mishearing the word “numnah” (a type of sheepskin pad).

And what did he have to say while hoisting the heavy trophy? “I’m really, really weak.” link

Seriously, this kid was a delight. The last desi to win was Anurag Kashyap in 2005. Only three years ago, but an eternity for a competition heavily loaded with over-achieving, heartbreaking desi kids.

As someone who can’t spell cat without spell-check, I never really paid attention to or understood the mesmerizing drama of spelling bees. Not until I recently saw the documentary Spellbound. Suddenly the years of study, weight of familial expectation, the children’s innocence and drive, the announcer’s voices, the rigid rules, the way personalities emerged in unexpected ways under crushing pressure…This was nail-biting, stomach-knotting suspense!! Hot damn!!

I caught a bit of the finals last night – this year seemed harder than ever before. After the jump, a list of the twelve finalists (five desis!) and the words faced by the last three standing in order of elimination. Of 16 rounds, here are the final 4:

Round 13:
Sameer Mishra (Lafayette, Indiana) spelled hyphaeresis correctly.
Sidharth Chand (Pontiac, Michigan) spelled Kulturkampf correctly.
Tia Thomas (Coarsegold, California) spelled opificer incorrectly.

Round 14:
Sameer Mishra spelled taleggio correctly.
Sidharth Chand spelled introuvable correctly.

Round 15:
Sameer Mishra spelled esclandre correctly.
Sidharth Chand spelled prosopopoeia incorrectly. (He was so close! Spelled it “prosopopoea.”)

Round 16:
Sameer Mishra spelled guerdon correctly. And wins!

Round-by-round results for the twelve finalists are here.

Second place winner Siddarth Chand is on the left, and two of the four fourth place finishers are center (Samia Nawaz) and right (Kavya Shivashankar). What is it about desis and spelling bees? We’ve posed the question before but appear to have answered it only partially, at best. Then again, the fact that desi kids also kick-ass in the geography bee might mean there is some truth to the idea that desis like gulping trivia like little brown pac-men. Whatever the case, I’m still scratching my head, spellbound.

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Previous SM coverage of the Spelling Bee: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

94 thoughts on “W-I-N-N-E-R! Desi Kid Wins Spelling Bee, Again

  1. And what did he have to say while hoisting the heavy trophy? “I’m really, really weak.”

    That’s the trade-off I guess…

  2. 53 · Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! said

    52 · Amitabh said
    That’s the trade-off I guess…
    I agree. All people with physical ability are terribly dumb.

    I have to disagree with those comments. Being physically gifted usually indicates better cognitive ability as well. The only reason athletes may appear dumb is because they have physical gifts which give them other things to spend time on. There is no reason to think that people with good physical attributes would be any more likely to be unintelligent; in fact, there is more reason to believe that because they developed well physically, their brains are also well developed.

  3. I think that most spelling bee finalists have turned out to be pretty average achievers in academics later in life.

    most people, purely by definition, turn out to be pretty average achievers in academics later in life. and this set of “where are they now” stories shows many of them doing very well later on.

    it is fashionable to mock the fascination with these eggheads into esoteric pursuits, but what success in the spelling bee probably requires far more than raw talent or cognitive intuition, is preternatural focus and dedication. combine that with the fact that these kids are probably of above average intelligence, and that is definitely a predictor of success if they can keep that level of intensity going in other things they care about.

    I have to disagree with those comments.

    maybe you missed the insinuation in #52 and the sarcastic counter-implication in #53…

    Being physically gifted usually indicates better cognitive ability as well.

    this might be true in some sort of evolutionary sense, but being academically successful in a world with our level of intellectual advancement – built over several centuries – requires serious training.

  4. Not amazed that so many desi kids participate in these sort of competitions, education is after all valued in our culture. We don’t really have such competitions in my country, at least not to such an extent. It’s part of the overall crab mentality here. Although that is changing as well, there are increasing amount of special schools and university programs, as well as scholarships, for the very gifted.

    There is proof that physical exercise stimulates brain activity. Alzheimer’s patients deteriorate less fast when they are taken for regular walks and such. It’s good to be physically active as well as score high. Oh, and physical beauty just completes the triad. :)

  5. So, to counter the blockbuster BEE ratings on ABC, CBS comes up with MMA. Ay Caramba!

  6. Jon Stewart’s explanation from 2006 for desis being good at spelling – “Your names already have like 20 letters in them. That’s a huge advantage. That’s always going to win against Bob Smith”.

    My husband’s explanation from 2002 runs along the same lines: “Indians have an edge over other spellers, because, at a very young age, they face a major challenge: learning to spell their own last names. Once you’ve spelled a name like Balasubramaniam, all words are easy.”

    Being the wet-blanket scientist in our family, I have to point out that as a diagnostic test, their thoughts have low sensitivities/positive predictive values. For starters, they miss out on all those kids with Polish and Nigerian surnames.

  7. 57 · Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! said

    is preternatural focus and dedication. combine that with the fact that these kids are probably of above average intelligence, and that is definitely a predictor of success if they can keep that level of intensity going in other things they care about.

    I would agree with this. Doing well in spelling bee is not a necessary and sufficient condition for success in later life. But since most successful endeavours require 99% perspiration and focus, the dedication required while going through this competition can be translated to other areas. In fact shorn of other connotations/baggage, extensding the same logic some of the religious/culural activities ( like praying and others rituals ) can be claimed to inculcate this discipline too. Any debates amongst liberal and conservatives sepias reg. this ?

  8. 6 · pingpong said

    I once read the hypothesis that desi kids learn English more by reading than by listening, so their spelling and grammar are subject to fewer errors than kids who pick up English primarily by listening. This includes grotesque errors like “I could of done that” instead of “I could have done that”. I don’t know how much truth the hypothesis has, however.

    I’m an ABD, but my parents spoke mostly Hindi and Punjabi when I was a child. I picked up most of my English from the massive amounts of books I read to the point where I always had the right word at the right time but I never knew how to pronounce it.

  9. I picked up most of my English from the massive amounts of books I read to the point where I always had the right word at the right time but I never knew how to pronounce it.

    Ha! I did exactly the same thing. My cousin still snickers about the time I tried to sound sophisticatedly adult and referred to my underwear as lingery.

  10. As someone who can’t spell cat without spell-check,

    Who are you Terry Bradshaw. I hope somebody here gets that.

  11. 63 · Cicatrix said

    My cousin still snickers about the time I tried to sound sophisticatedly adult and referred to my underwear as lingery

    Birds and bees problem ?

  12. 50 · Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! said

    you sound like a keeper yourself!

    As it happens, I was a millionaire by the age of 30 and I have a sweet pimped out ride. Also, I sat at the cool kids’ table in the cafeteria in high school. But even if I lived in a van down by the river, I would be better than any of these pathetic uber-geeks.

    CS

    PS: My girlfriend is smokin’ hot.

  13. As it happens, I was a millionaire by the age of 30 and I have a sweet pimped out ride. Also, I sat at the cool kids’ table in the cafeteria in high school…PS: My girlfriend is smokin’ hot.

    Celeritas Subpontus, now that you’ve informed us of how fully you’ve compensated for the inadequacies in your pants and/or brain, please stick to the topic and try not to bolster your manhood by ridiculing children.

    Thanks in advance!

  14. Sepia Intern, dizzamn!

    PS: My girlfriend is smokin’ hot.

    Please be posting pictures of you both in compromising position. How can we be believing that above-mentioned lady friend is not imaginary or inflatable?

  15. The Spelling Bee and the Geography Bee both reward rote learning and memorization. The indian educational system is almost entirely based on rote learning. The immigrant parents of these kids, who probably did really well in that backward educational system to get to america, passed on their culture to their american born kids. Then there is the inordinate pride in proficiency in english among the servile macaulayite desis…….

  16. The Spelling Bee and the Geography Bee both reward rote learning and memorization. The indian educational system is almost entirely based on rote learning. The immigrant parents of these kids, who probably did really well in that backward educational system to get to america, passed on their culture to their american born kids. Then there is the inordinate pride in proficiency in english among the servile macaulayite desis…….

    LOL–why are you so jealous of us? You really are quite silly–my parents’ “backward” education paid off just fine here in the US.

  17. 72 · Valmiki said

    The Spelling Bee and the Geography Bee both reward rote learning and memorization. The indian educational system is almost entirely based on rote learning.

    …err, as opposed to the famously non-conformist chinese education (and political) system?

  18. I’m very proud of all this! Here’s a question that I have for you: Do you think that this raises interesting questions about languages and assimilability? These Indo-Americans, I’m sure, are bilingual, and they are also first-generation.

    Isn’t it amazing that in spite of this, our people roq!

  19. These Indo-Americans, I’m sure, are bilingual

    Why are you sure about that? It’s possible they are bilingual, but to these extremely practical-minded parents, anything not directly useful to their agendas for their children has a pretty low priority…and I’d guess retaining Indian mothertongues falls in that category.

  20. The indian educational system is almost entirely based on rote learning

    I guess you meant “The desi educational system is almost entirely based on rote learning”

    These Indo-Americans, I’m sure, are bilingual

    I guess you meant “These desi-Americans, I’m sure, are bilingual”

    Title of the topic is “W-I-N-N-E-R! Desi Kid Wins Spelling Bee, Again” so please use desi instead of indian in your comments.

    Thanks.

  21. 11 · Abhi said

    Only geeks have time to watch the riveting spelling bee final rounds on a Friday.

    They were showing the bee at The Park at 14th in DC on friday night. I guess the club caters to geeks. :)

  22. anything not directly useful to their agendas for their children has a pretty low priority…and I’d guess retaining Indian mothertongues falls in that category

    Amitabh,

    My impression of you is that during your teens, you decided that you did not want to be strongly assimilated into the US culture. After you made that decision, you had a motivation to learn Punjabi, and it became easy for your parents to help you to learn Punjabi. But before you made that decision, your parents were afraid to push you to learn Punjabi—what if you had rebelled against them? What if you had been turned off Punjabi permanently?

    PS: How did you acquire competence in Punjabi? How are you retaining this competence? Whom do you speak to in Punjabi? What are the occasions when you write Punjabi? When you communicate in Punjabi, is your Punjabi criticized as being too formal? Too old-fashioned? Too provincial?

  23. 70 · Sepia Intern said

    As it happens, I was a millionaire by the age of 30 and I have a sweet pimped out ride. Also, I sat at the cool kids’ table in the cafeteria in high school…PS: My girlfriend is smokin’ hot.
    Celeritas Subpontus, now that you’ve informed us of how fully you’ve compensated for the inadequacies in your pants and/or brain, please stick to the topic and try not to bolster your manhood by ridiculing children. Thanks in advance!

    LOL….no problem. The whole thing was a joke, in any case, as the “Subpontus” thing indicated. I actually am one of the “pathetic ubergeeks” of whom I speak, and the exalted claims of my net worth and virility are grossly overstated.

    CS

  24. My cousin still snickers about the time I tried to sound sophisticatedly adult and referred to my underwear as lingery

    You can tell him or her that it’s no worse than pronouncing it “lahn-zhe-ray”, which is incorrect, too and yet heard all the time.

  25. 72 · Valmiki said

    Then there is the inordinate pride in proficiency in english among the servile macaulayite desis…….

    Ngugi, which language is your usual medium of communication?

    Macaulay was an insufferable imperialist no doubt, but your self-righteousness and tendency to point to the well-known deficiencies of India (that most mutineers already know, criticize, and even try to ameliorate) is equally grating in its shrillness.

  26. lingua fracas #82:

    your self-righteousness and tendency to point to the well-known deficiencies of India (that most mutineers already know, criticize, and even try to ameliorate) is equally grating in its shrillness.

    Hey, he/she/it wouldn’t be Vyasa/Valmiki if it weren’t shrill. I’m inclined to think that Vyasa is an AI programmed to troll sepia– a brilliant but flawed, flawed because it is so predictable, creation of some bitter, laid-off, computer type.

  27. No 72:Valmiki

    I trust that you were being tongue-in-cheek! Proficiency in English is almost a required now. I am quite proud of the fact that I had great grades with rote learning ;-) . I am trying to teach my ABD son how to memorize dates for history, essays for debate competitions, mathematical formulae…And it is amusing to see that the high school DOES really require you to memorize quite a bit if you want to succeed. It will be interesting to see how many of you people who have gone through the system can tell me that you NEVER ever had to memorize anything in high school. In which case, I may be doing something wrong? And if you are an ABD, please do not knock your parents in such a rude fashion. My son is learning Latin and French and is fluent in a dialect called Hebbar Iyengar Tamil that probably only a handful of people even know exists! My son though stinks in spelling ;-) .

  28. My son is learning Latin and French and is fluent in a dialect called Hebbar Iyengar Tamil that probably only a handful of people even know exists!

    Rock on!

  29. Good post.Indian are more concern about achieving difficult contest.

  30. My son though stinks in spelling ;-) .

    You’re obviously not feeding him enough Horlicks:)

  31. I disagree with Krouse or whatever that guy’s name is. Bees are not a waste of time. Track each of previous bee winners and see where they are going. Bees spruce up your mind and keeps it sharp. These are achievers every way.

    Better than being a “most likely to success” high school kid and wasting away all of your later years at a Super Cuts, Meineke or a mcDonalds.

  32. Better than being a “most likely to success” high school kid and wasting away all of your later years at a Super Cuts, Meineke or a mcDonalds.

    I bet you also look down on a desi motel owner.

  33. Gandhi said be the change you wish to see in the world. If english speaking indians raging against the use of the english language stopped using the english language and stopped enrolling their children in english language schools the change they wish to see would happen.

  34. 90

    If there was no English, I would be writing in Hebbar Bhashe and you would be left scratching your head! How in heavens name are we all to communicate? Is India to be broken further down into linguistic countries so that we can keep the purity of our mother-tongues. Why not learn MORE languages? What is the harm in that? As a mother of an ABD I see lots of highschoolers happily traipsing around learning so many languages like French, Spanish, Greek, Latin, Arabic… No different from me learning my language at home, learning Hindi while we lived in the North, learning Tamil when we moved to Madras and then learning Kannada when parents moved to Karnataka. The more the merrier is a better phrase than to just shut down borders and minds to new ideas and languages.

  35. are these kids reinforcing the geeky stereotype? Not picking on them, but when would one see a desi ABD kid, solidly built/fit, no eyeglasses, intelligent yet not geeky, being shown on TV? I think these kids are no different from some indian kids in india whose parents raise them only for getting a rank in some obscure exam. how many of them go on to become anything famous later in their life because of this bee thing? I think kids should be balanced between academics an the rest of the time in some physical activity. healthy mind in a healthy body, you know. Desi parents typically ignore the games part, instead forcing the kids to train for these competitions, whether in india or US.

  36. competition heavily loaded with over-achieving, heartbreaking desi kids

    hmmm which we all either:

    a) rebelled against by becoming artsy alterna desi’s, using varying amounts of tequila/belle and sebastian/raging self pity to ease our guilt over familial disappointment, or

    b) conforming and becoming super hyperprofessionals who still feel vaguely guilty at not having thrown it all away to go backpacking through france, using the same mixture as above to ease our guilt over living up the stereotype…

    maybe the ‘competition’ in that sentence should read ‘blog’…? ;p not wanting to call anyone out/label but when i read this post i immediately sensed the odd mixture of pride/embarrassment/annoyance/discomfort/more pride by association…i was so that nupur kid in spellbound! eep.

  37. While the MD/PhD overall is pretty impressive (extremely difficult program to get accepted into), the paper you cite as evidence for her academic success is rather trivial. For its gratuitously long and obfuscating title, all the paper is saying is that they identified two separate medical conditions in the same patient. This kind of case study paper belongs to the category of easy, hand-me-down publications that they award to MD/PhDs since the point of the program is to train a medical doctor to do clinical research and to get them out within a certain timeline. An MD/PhD gets a full ride and a stipend, which is an enormous cost for the medical school to absorb, and so the cost of failure is financially unacceptable. As a result, MD/PhD students are awarded the PhD portion under more lax requirements for publication so they can move onto medical rotations without worrying about being stuck on their PhD research project. For example, no PhD student would ever get a paper like that published much less graduate on its academic merits.