On July 8, Zaila Avant-garde became the first African American middle school student to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Like many other Black women who saw themselves reflected in Zaila’s historic win, I posted the news on social media, hearted the posts by others, and felt the pride of my community.
But then it settled in that the first National Bee was in 1925. After only one other Black student, Jamaican-born Jody-Anne Maxwell, in 1998, this historic win highlighted how narrow the road is to this competition and how inequitable the access is for many minorities, especially those without an infrastructure of support.
I taught middle school grammar at a small private K-8 school in Miami. For 20 years, I conducted the classroom spelling bee for my school. It was a requirement. By the time students reached me in the eighth grade, they had five spelling bees under their belt. Most students in my class got tripped up on words like “colonel” or forgot that “accommodate” had two c’s, two m’s, and two o’s.
But most were not invested in winning the bee. For many of my students, English was taught secondary to Spanish, so spelling was less critical than speaking well in both languages. Neither was spelling as high on the list of priorities as getting into the right high school.
Most of these students were Latino and from wealthy second- or third-generation immigrant families. Their parents paid thousands to prepare them for high school entrance exams, and, if there was interest, they could afford the coaching and the study groups required for their children to compete beyond the classroom.
One former student from our school actually did make it to D.C. in 2009 to compete in the national bee. And, although she didn’t win, her chances seemed greater than for girls who looked like Zaila and attended public schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
Before this year, the idea of a Black girl winning a spelling bee was seen as a work of fiction. In the 2006 film “Akeelah and the Bee,” the main character, Akeelah, played by actress and singer Keke Palmer, is a girl who attends a grade school in South Los Angeles. After overcoming many obstacles, and with the help of her community, Akeelah makes her way to the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
After announcing Avant-garde’s win, Palmer posted on her Instagram, “THE REAL LIFE AKEELAH YOU GUYS!! The real-life one. I’m so happy in my heart.”
When I learned that Zaila, a home-schooled student and Guinness World Record holder for basketball dribbling, was this year’s winner, it brought back memories of the film. In one scene, Akeelah and the students in her study group practice dribbling and shooting a basketball to practice difficult spelling words.
For many years, I showed this film to my students before the spelling bee to imagine what it would be like to have a talent and passion for something without the resources and support to pursue it.
The film does an excellent job of illustrating that competing for a regional or national spelling bee requires a lot more than a good memory and commitment. It requires lots of time, money, and support from your school, parents, and community. Learning Latin, acquiring a spelling coach, traveling, and joining private study groups are luxuries many can’t afford.
Beyond that, many public schools don’t provide an opportunity for their students to compete. There are various reasons schools opt-out: competing priorities, lack of funds, lack of interest, or lack of time.
Schools that can afford the $250 to $300 to register still need to prioritize the bee and dedicate the time in the school schedule. They need teacher volunteers willing to administer the bee and take time away from the required curriculum and testing schedules.
One administrator at a South Miami-Dade County public middle school said her school didn’t participate because teachers were overwhelmed with the testing schedule they already had. “My principal would have gladly paid the $300 registration fee, but we couldn’t get a teacher to sponsor it. The culture of testing definitely impacts preparation for the spelling bee.