Interviews with those winners, many who are the children of seamstresses or small-time shopkeepers, reveal that to bring the glow of accomplishment into their parents' spare lives, they will sacrifice television viewing and socializing to work on agonizingly slow and complicated experiments.
But Indians brought to spelling mastery some particular advantages, said Madhulika S. Khandelwal, an Indian immigrant who directs the Asian American Center at Queens College. Their parents or grandparents were usually educated, often as scientists or engineers; their parents generally spoke English and appreciated the springboard powers of education.
Unlike many American children who are schooled in sometimes amorphous whole-language approaches to reading and writing, Indians are comfortable with the rote-learning methods of their homeland, the kind needed to master lists of obscure words that easily stump spell-checker programs. They do not regard champion spellers as nerds.
By 1993, the North South Foundation, based outside of Chicago and devoted to making sure Indians here do as well in English as in math, set up a parallel universe of spelling bees. Now 60 chapters around the country hold such contests, according to its founder, Ratnam Chitturi.
They become a minor-league training ground for the major league 80-year-old Scripps National Spelling Bee, which was started by The Louisville Courier-Journal as a way to promote "general interest among pupils in a dull subject."
The enthusiasm has spread. There are now chat rooms and blogs where Indians discuss spelling. Stories about the contests are featured prominently in community newspapers.
(Blogging about spelling? I'd love to read that.)
What are we to make of this idea that some ethnic groups are more "comfortable" with rote learning than others? Is rote learning an unpleasant ordeal that some groups will tolerate, or can rote learning be a pleasure with intrinsic value? Why do Americans with distant immigrant ancestry think we need to structure education to spare our kids any contact with rote learning? We get so involved in thinking of our kids as creative and independently analytical that perhaps we deprive them of the opportunity to experience the joy of building their memorization powers.
Don't you sometimes undertake a memorization project just for fun? I do! Why shouldn't we think our kids would actually like doing memory exercises some of the time? Why do we always have to throw in the pejorative word "rote" when talking about memorization? Why don't we appreciate memorization as a beautiful human accomplishment?
Memory! What is more profoundly human?
And it is not merely memory that wins the spelling competition, it is analysis. The best spellers take the things they know -- root words and spelling conventions of different languages of origin -- and figure out how to spell words they don't know. We Americans of distant immigrant ancestry value analytical skills so much, but you need something in your mind to analyze, so memory is a crucial component of these intellectual activites we think are so important.
Let's build memory and be proud of it!