On My Mind: In The Spelling Bee, Nothing But P-R-E-S-S-U-R-E
There’s a local kid in the finals of the National Spelling Bee this year. On Thursday, Sreethan Gajula from Waxhaw will join 10 other finalists in Orlando to compete for the championship. He’s 14, goes to Marvin Ridge Middle School, loves the Panthers and wears a lucky Microsoft hoodie.
If you’re willing to expand your definition of sports a little, the Spelling Bee might be my favorite sporting event of the year. I’ve covered a Super Bowl, some Final Fours and a couple of college football title games. But the most intense competition I ever covered was the Spelling Bee. And the Spelling Bee I covered had one of the all-time comebacks.
It was back in 2004. I was there to write about Marshall Winchester, a 12-year-old from Mineral Springs. Marshall finished tied for fourth that year – an incredible achievement.
But the speller people remember from that year was a 13-year-old named Akshay Buddiga. Late in the competition, in front of the live crowd and the TV lights, Akshay was asked to spell the word “alopecoid,” which means “like a fox.” In his mind he could see two ways of spelling the word, and he couldn’t decide. He asked for the definition. He jammed his hands in his pockets. He stalled for almost three minutes, and at some point he accidentally locked his knees.
I was watching from maybe 25 feet away. I saw his eyes go wide. And then this happened.
That was the sound of the crowd watching Akshay faint.
The pressure we put on some children in this society is enormous, especially in sports. This time of year is the Olympic trials, where so many young gymnasts and swimmers who worked basically their whole lives to make the team didn’t quite get there. Young tennis players, golfers, basketball players get hustled into the pros when they’re teenagers. Some of them are ready. Most aren’t.
And of course some of them are shoved into lives they don’t want by parents living through their kids, or just looking to cash in.
The Spelling Bee doesn’t have quite the same stakes. But it is a high-pressure moment. And it’s a vehicle to think about what it does to kids when we load them up with so much responsibility.
Having said all that … sometimes they respond. That day in 2004, after Akshay fainted, he got back up. He went back to the mic.
He finished as the runner-up in the Spelling Bee. He went on to Duke, then Stanford, and now he works in tech out in the Bay Area.
I hope that Sreethan from Waxhaw, and all those other kids under the lights this week, get to learn something about falling down and getting back up. Although maybe not quite so literally.
Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at firstname.lastname@example.org.