Over the last ten years, Stevi Costa has gone from undergraduate to PhD candidate/graduate teaching assistant. How has this changed her opinion on the spelling bee documentary Spellbound and her understanding of socio-economic inequality, Benedict Anderson, and musical robots?
In 2003, I was a first year college student at UC Santa Barbara. Arts & Lectures put together a lot of free programming to keep students in our relatively isolated (but super beautiful because it was literally built on a mesa overlooking the beach) campus from falling further into our stereotype of being the University of Casual Sex and Booze. And it was at an Arts & Lectures sponsored event that I initially saw Spellbound, a documentary about kids who just really want to win the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee.I reviewed Spellbound this week because I recalled it being a riveting documentary. I admittedly don’t watch many documentaries. I’m more of a narrative fiction kind of girl. Even though I read a lot more non-fiction now than I did as an undergrad (particular favorites: science writing, food writing, rock and roll journalism), I still don’t seek out documentary features. My limit for non-fiction seems to be in short bursts: an hour at a time, maximum, reading on public transportation or watching an hour-long special on rare diseases. As I sat down to watch Spellbound again, I struggled to remember what made this film so magical to me ten years ago, the thing that got me excited to watch it again. Maybe it was the act of feeling really grown up by choosing to go to a documentary instead of seeking out casual sex and booze on Del Playa Drive. Maybe it was because the film was introduced by the undergraduate programming director, a nice Jewish boy with sleepy eyes, a Beatles-esque mop of dark hair, and a wry voice that made my roommate pine for him from that day forward. (Reader, she married him.) Or maybe it was because in my first quarter of college I hadn’t had my love of spelling (and subsequently ability to do so well) ruined by the discipline of linguistics yet.Whatever it was, Spellbound did not have the same magic to me on this re-viewing. There’s nothing interesting about the way in which this film is made, and the story it tells is fairly simple, especially in comparison to the absolutely batshit world of pro-Scrabble tournaments revealed in the later (and totally unrelated) documentary Word Wars. But while Spellbound may have a very low rewatchability factor, it was interested to watch this film ten years later after having made the transition from student to teacher. In a very quiet and unassuming way (antithetical to the personality-driven documentaries of Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore), Spellbound subtly comments on the state of education in the United States in 1999, and points out the spelling bee’s role in an American tradition of rewarding hard work as a form of social intelligence.Our subjects are eight 8th graders from various ethnic, geographical, and socio-economic backgrounds. Let’s meet them:
Angela: Her parents emigrated from Mexico illegally to give their children better educational opportunities in the U.S. Her father paid a coyote to bring his family to the U.S. when Angela was just a baby. She and her family live on a ranch in Texas, where her father and older brother are employed. The ranch is owned by some very old white people, who are ever so casually racist. They wonder how Angela learned to speak English so good when her parents only speak Spanish. When these folks were introduced, I turned to my husband and said, “These are my people.” They dress and speak exactly like my relatives in Missouri. Right down to the denim on denim cowperson attire.
Nupur: Nupur is Indian-American and lives with her family in Tampa, Florida. Her little brother owns a really cool inflatable Star Wars chair. Her house seems nice and her bedroom has a view of the ocean. Her mother and father like to help her study for Bees by reading the dictionary with her. It seems like the only time they spend together, as every other time we see Nupur she is alone in her room playing her violin. We don’t know what Nupur’s parents do, but they certainly don’t seem pushy about any of her activities. They seem like a nice middle-class family. Nupur’s mother notes that ever since Nupur was two, she loved to say big words – even if she had no idea what they meant. “She would always say, ‘I have no opportunities!’ even though at two she didn’t know what an opportunity was,” her mother says.Ted: Ted entered the Spelling Bee in his Mississippi middle school at the prompting of his teacher. He had never done it before, but he won. And he kept winning enough local and regional Bees to qualify for the Scripps Howard. Ted’s family lives on a couple acres of property. His father is a local educator, and he and his wife seem a bit worried that Ted doesn’t really have much interest in school or after school activities and just wants to come home and shoot arrows or make amateur explosives. His mother is worried that his interests will land him on the wrong side of the law. His father thinks he should join the Marines to learn some discipline. His family raises peacocks, which makes me think that they are the most awesome people in all of Rolla, Mississippi. We see some shots of Rolla, Mississippi in Ted’s introductory package and it appears to be a bit run down, an old factory town that no longer manufactures anything.
Emily: From somewhere in Connecticut, Emily is clearly our most affluent subject. This is the 3rd and final year that she’ll compete in the Bee, having qualified for the National Bee the prior two years of her middle school experience. She speaks of being very disappointed that her au pair would not be able to join her family on the trip to this year’s Bee. “But the au pair is a member of our family,” she insists. Emily talks about her study habits over a montage of her riding horses and practicing polo. She knows a lot of words, but doesn’t like to use them a lot in conversation because she is “worried about sounding too smart.”
Ashley: She is African American and lives in D.C. She will not have to travel far for the National Bee. Her mother mentions that it is hard to juggle going to Bees with Ashley and working multiple jobs. Ashley does not practice spelling at home, but stays after school and works with her teacher by playing spelling games with fill-in-the-blanks and Scrabble tiles. Ashley seems aware that she is on the lower end of the socio-economic scale. When we first meet her, she remarks that she sees her life like a movie because she experiences trials and tribulations and then overcomes them. She is like a tiny, living Oprah’s Book Club selection.
Neil: Neil is a pretty laid back dude who lives with a super-intense Indian father. Neil’s sister tells us that Neil is an athlete, and that the mix of people you find at Spelling Bees was one of the things she liked about them when she was competing. Neil does not seem to care much about the Bee. We never really hear his thoughts or feelings about it, but we sure hear a lot from his dad. His father describes to us a complex regimen he uses when he and Neil practice spelling together. He is the kind of person who uses the word “we” but really means “I.” Neil’s dad also shows us the giant house he and his brother built in Orange County. It’s opulent. There’s a lot of custom marble. It also has a view of the ocean. Neil’s dad remarks that all things are possible in America. “There is no way you can fail in this country,” he says. “There is one guarantee: if you work hard, you’ll make it.”
April: April lives in what I think is New Hampshire. Her house seems like it’s semi-rural. It’s got a big yard, apple trees, and a swing. Her parents are older. They love puns, particularly bee-related ones. She tells us her parents remind her of Archie & Edith Bunker. I like her immediately because she clearly watches TV Land. April loves studying for spelling bees. She says that she studies for 8-9 hours a day when she doesn’t have school. Her teachers supply that even at school, whenever there’s a break between classes or activities or even between plays on the softball field, April breaks out her notecards and studies words. She gets teased for this.
Harry: The documentarians obviously saved the best kid for last. Harry is an adorable weirdo. He’s spazzy, chatty, smart, and utterly charming in his weirdness. He will, on occasion, present perfectly normal thoughts to us in strange voices, like that of a musical robot, simply to amuse himself. I am attracted to his weirdness and overcome with a desire to adopt him and hug him to my bosom. I proclaim my love for this marvelous child out loud. “That kid is me,” my husband says. Obviously, this is fate. We later learn that Harry lives in New Jersey and is Jewish. It is apparent to me that he likes spelling bees because it gives him a way to focus his OCD and ADHD into something productive.
After meeting these kids, the documentary moves straight to the drama of the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in which these eight children, along with some 239 others, compete over two days to win prize money, a trophy, and bragging rights for their parents. One by one, we watch anonymous children get buzzed out for missing words, and among them, we see our eight documentary subjects eventually fail. It’s sad every time a speller gets buzzed out, because you know how hard they’ve worked and how much they’ve studied to compete, but there’s also something that seems unfair at times about the way the Spelling Bee is designed to be a competition. There are many things you can do to learn how to spell: study phonetic combinations, languages of origin, use context to figure out which spelling of homonyms might be appropriate, etc. But ultimately in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, all of that strategy comes down to absolute chance. We can’t all be the kid who gets to spell “chivalry.” Some of the kids are going to have to spell “ichthyosis.”
But what I now realize as an educator that I didn’t realize as a student is how much those chances can vary based on a student’s socio-economic background. It seems to be no coincidence to me that the first three spellers from our pool of documentary subjects eliminated from the National Bee are Ted, Angela, and Ashley: the lower middle-class white farm kid from a decaying factory town, the Mexican-American girl whose Anglo employers can’t figure out how she learned to speak English at all, and our only African-American subject from a single-parent, multi-job home. Education, or the idea of it, doesn’t seem as important to Ted’s family (in spite of the fact that his father is a school administrator) or in Ashley’s. Ted’s family cares only that their son stays out of jail. Ashley’s mother has to work too hard to support her to be able to spend time studying with her. These facts point to an economic reality in which surviving (whether that’s eating or staying on the good side of the law) is more important than advancement. Angela’s family speaks of dreams of advancement, but it’s implied that the language barrier between her parents and their Anglo employers stymies that. Angela, by spelling well in her second language, makes her family proud just by making it to the National Bee. Her father watches her get eliminated with a smile on his face. He does not know what is being said or spelled. The educational background of all three of these children make their chances of performing well in the National Bee markedly lower than that of their competitors from higher socio-economic backgrounds, with parents who have enough free time to study with them or the money to afford multiple books, dictionaries, au pairs, polo practice, and, of course, the cost of the trip to D.C. itself.
The Bee operates on the assumption that spelling words used in English correctly is a hallmark of intelligence, and that learning to spell well in English somehow makes you more American. Indeed, all local and regional spelling bees are sponsored by local newspapers, cementing journalism as the bastion of language use, standards, and correctness. We look to journalism not simply for news, but to tell us how to speak and write properly. (Which is itself an insane notion as newspaper journalism warps English grammar and syntax in the name of reducing space on a consistent and regular basis.) This documentary depicts a great amount of buy-in to this notion, and perhaps provides an answer of a sort to the question posed by Angela’s parents’ employers. How did Angela get so good at English when her parents only speak Spanish? The answer lies in an immersion in the media of her new culture: reading in English, writing in English in school, hearing English on TV, and so on. This, too, is true of Ashley’s affinity for spelling. It has nothing to do with her parents, and everything to do with immersive reading and writing facilitated by print media she receives at school. This lends credence to Benedict Anderson’s notion that nationhood is imagined through literature and national print languages, as well as Michael Warner’s understanding of a diffusion of letters. But the documentary also points to how this idealized form of nation-building through the American tradition of the spelling bee is hindered by actual socio-economic inequality within the nation. The moneyed families from India can move up the social ladder through education successfully because they have the economic means to do so: lower-class domestic students and children of working-class immigrants cannot.
Nupur wins, by the way. Her winning word is ‘logorrhea’: “excessive and often incoherent talkativeness or wordiness.” An apt way to wrap up a spelling bee.