What Spelling Bees and Sports Need More Of

Did anyone else watch the National Spelling Bee finals last night? My guys put on ESPN and were mesmerized. I laughed, drifted in, was hooked. Same with our teen. Spoiler alert: it ended in a tie. Co-champs Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalem made it through multiple rounds. They correctly spelled words like pipsissewa and zimocca and pyrrhuloxia. (NOTE: my spell check does not believe these are real words. That’s how obscure they are.)

I’m glad they both survived multiple rounds to be named co-champs.

Honestly, it was easier to root for Vanya. She looked so comfortable, smiling before and after she spelled. She showed sportsmanship, clapping for all her competitors. Gokul showed almost no emotion. He didn’t clap. Maybe he was having fun; it didn’t look like it. He looked like a kid who needed to win. I was kind of worried what would happen if he didn’t.

There’s a lot of pressure on these spelling contestants to succeed. Washington Post reporter Lavanya Ramanathan recently published an essay entitled Someday The Spelling Bee Winners May Wish They Just Played Football Instead. In her piece, she laments an overemphasis on academics among Indian American families like hers and the lack of sports in her life as a child. She wishes she’d played a sport, learned the lessons that come from being on a team, like celebrating one’s teammates, learning to bounce back from failure.

It struck me, upon reading the article, that what Ms. Ramanathan really missed was fun. She cited summers spent writing book reports while her friends did cannonballs at the neighborhood pool. So here’s the thing: fun can be found in spelling bees, and it can be lacking in sports. It’s really on the adults to set the tone.

In last night’s spelling bee, Vanya looked to be having fun. The organizers did too; the spelling bee moderator was positively giddy reading some of the spelling word sentences. The organizers threw in jokes, pop culture references. The moderator even made ultra-serious contestant Gokul smile a few times.

The Spelling Bee Finalists: Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam. And they're both smiling!
The Spelling Bee Finalists: Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam. And they’re both smiling!

Of course winning matters in sports and spelling bees. But fun does too–something we parents, coaches and teachers shouldn’t forget. How? We can tell our kids how much joy we get out of watching them play. We can model that fun. We can show them it’s not all serious.

I wrote about one of my favorite sports memories in my very first blog post, published almost a year ago. It was about the most joy I’ve ever seen on a baseball field. And it wasn’t even a real game.

That first blog post, here. And thanks for signing up and sticking with me. Excited to see what year two of writing brings.




Author: Kristin O'Keefe

Kristin O’Keefe has bartended in Scotland, written speeches for college presidents, and led communications & marketing for an economic development organization. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney's, Barrelhouse, Your Teen, Grown and Flown, and Scary Mommy. Find her on Twitter @_KristinOKeefe and Facebook at Kristin O'Keefe, writer.

4 thoughts on “What Spelling Bees and Sports Need More Of

  1. mom says:

    I enjoyed reading both which seem very wise to me and moving; but I wonder why Aiden was sent in as a pitch hitter. Oh, well it certainly made a cinematic ending and brought out the best in a baseball season.

  2. Aviva Goldfarb says:

    Thanks for the reminder of the importance of making fun a priority in our lives and in our kids’. Having sang and danced with you a lot (but not enough) this year, I know you live what you preach. Speaking of which, live music at Villain & Saint this summer?

    1. Kristin O'Keefe says:

      Thanks Aviva! And definitely to summer fun!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.