There I awkwardly stood: a third grader in the midst of seventh and eighth graders, a dwarf in a garden of giants, an unwelcome addition to what was traditionally considered a “middle-school only” affair. I shakily approached the microphone, adjusted it to my height (once again), and meekly spelled my eighth or ninth word that day; then it came — “I’m sorry, the correct spelling is …..,” the pronouncer said, ending my lucky streak and, in my mind, my future as a “professional speller.” What I did not realize was that this event was the beginning of an obsession with etymology and words.

Fast forward 5 years, and I sat on the stage of the Scripps National Spelling Bee as a returning competitor and for the last time. As the entrance music played, I looked out and saw a throng of spectators, dazzling lights, and television cameras, and as I reflected on the journey I had taken since that fateful day in the third grade — the grueling local competitions, the painful hours of intense studying, the somewhat irritating media interviews, the immense stress I had placed on my family — I realized that the spelling bee was more than just an event and greater than just a hobby. It defined my adolescence, helping me mature in ways I had never deemed possible and teaching me lessons that are forever invaluable.

First and foremost, the spelling bee imbued in me a new sense of self-assurance, transforming my previously perpetual diffidence into a new inherent confidence. I no longer just meekly spelled words; I belted them out with mettle. I no longer struggled behind a podium as I expounded on the results of my microbiological research; I presented them with poise. I no longer hesitated to make my ideas known in public; I fostered the courage of my convictions. I would have never previously given a thought to running for or holding office, competing in science fairs, or leading an organization — things that I now do and take for granted.

The spelling bee also taught me the lasting value of intellectual curiosity. As a logophile, I still often find myself subconsciously examining the roots of words I see and consequently the motivations of linguists past and present. Why, for example, does the word tragedy come from a Greek root word meaning “goat song?” Although it sounds like an insipid quirk, the ability to question has helped me tremendously throughout high school and daily life. As Anne Frank said, “The word why has not only taught me to ask, but also to think.” Whether I’m pondering the constitutionality of a particular state law or the reasons behind a particular theory in physics, the ability to argue for and against something and make a conclusion based on evidence —all from the simple act of asking why — is quite amazing.

The spelling bee was an impetus to my development as both an individual and as a student. It helped me find my voice when nothing else could and encouraged me to question the “status-quo” to find answers to any problem.  Now, whether I am giving a speech in front of a large crowd or just simply asking why something happens, my mind wanders back to that day in the third grade, where a timid youngster, oblivious of the trials and tribulations of the future, was propelled by dejection to work harder and succeed the next time around.

- Rahul Krishnaswamy, 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee, North South Foundation Regional Pronouncer.

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