The spelling bee might make you feel worse about yourself but it should make you feel better about America.

Who let go of the trophy first? Photo Credit: India West.
Who let go of the trophy first? Photo Credit: India West.

In case you missed it, “dropping the mic” has come to represent the moment when a person so owns a subject matter that he or she no longer has to say anything. The mastery is self-evident. People drop the mic after reciting a rap song or winning an argument over Super Bowl trivia. Maybe they correctly predicted the outcome of The Voice or who will get the last rose.  In truth, most mic dropping comes for a perceived dominance in a narrow, inconsequential category.  Last night we saw something a bit different.  At the end of several days of fierce competition, 14-year-old Gokul Venkatachalam (metaphorically) dropped the mic when it became clear to all he had mastered the category  of “words.”

Gokul battled his obvious soul mate, Vanya Shivashankar, to a tie in the ESPN-televised Scripps National Spelling Bee. We have all sorts of creepy metaphors about the lack of satisfaction that comes from a tied contest but last night was no soccer match.  The words became more and more bizarre but neither Gokul nor Vanya flinched.  About 10 words into the 25-word final round it was apparent that these youngsters knew how to spell every word in the English language.  The contest could go on forever but there was not going to be a mistake.  If the object of a contest is to get the best out of the contestants,  we  saw two winners.

Vanya had the decency to feign effort, asking several times for word definitions, pronunciations, language of origin and the other clues spellers use, before scribbling the answer on her hand and reciting that answer to the judges.  Vanya is not as good of an actress as she is a speller, however, and we knew she was just killing time.  The tell was the fact that she had two minutes to spell each word.  Uncertainty results in using almost all of that time. If Vanya had less than 40 seconds left on any word, I would be surprised.

Gokul also asked for clues but he raced through his requests, as if he had to ask something to please the form judges. Halfway through the final round, Gokul switched tactics and started suggesting from which language the word came, reducing the judge to a non-essential yes man. Gokul’s casual manner suggested he would like to add some quadratic equations to the task just to make things interesting. His correct responses always came with more than a minute left on the clock.

Getting most early teens to pick up their socks constitutes a major parenting victory. So how does one explain these two, and in truth, all the competitors who made it to the final?  Self-evidently, children of Indian descent rule this event (we had an Anglo third-place finish this year) but maybe the lesson is this simple: hard work wins.  One has to be smart to be a good speller but native intelligence is just the beginning. Spelling principles, if applied correctly, can get you out of a sticky situation.  Even so, smart people applying those principles  face a monumental number of possible combinations. There is only one path to the sort of mastery Gokul and Vanya showed us–countless hours of concentration.  I went to bed knowing there is hope for us all. Or at least vowing to look up Gokul to treat my cancer 25 years from now.

Nor could I blame Gokul for robbing us of all suspense when he was asked to spell “nunatek” to end the match.  No more pretense, no questions about definitions, parts of speech or word origins.  Just “N-U-N-A-T-E-K.”  One minute, fifty seconds left on the clock. And the mic on the floor.

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