Getting called out of my 7th grade classroom to report to the Principal’s office wasn’t that unusual of an event for me. What made this particular occasion different were the other kids that were selected to join me. They were four of the smartest and best behaved kids in the room and, of course, they were all girls. I honestly had no clue why we were called out of class.
It turned out that we were the top five finishers in a test to determine who would represent our classroom in the middle school finals of the spelling bee. Then we had a little spell off for the classroom championship, conducted by the school’s vice principal, right there in the office. No one was more surprised than I was when I won. And trust me; anyone who knew me was surprised, too.
I was a notorious screw up in my junior high years, blessed with a rare combination of immaturity and laziness. Most of my academic energies were concentrated on coming up with new and original excuses for not turning my homework in (I lost count of how many times I claimed that papers fell out of my notebooks and into sewer grates on my way to school – there was also the dog we never owned that had an insatiable appetite for paper, and was eventually the victim, along with a science worksheet, of an apparent alien abduction. That one didn’t go over very well). So my winning anything except more detention time was big news.
A couple of weeks later they pulled me out of class again, this time to the school cafeteria, where I was to compete against all of the other sixth, seventh and eighth grade classroom winners in the school finals. All told, there were about 20 contestants. All of the other kids were very smart, good students, brainiacs, who, unlike me, had actually studied for the event. I might have studied, too, had I been paying attention when someone must have told me about it, but I had no clue – but then again, I probably wouldn’t have studied even if I’d known about it. But it was an hour or two out of my normal class work, which I was all in favor of.
Well, in the crowning achievement of my academic career, I managed to finish 4th in the event. I wish I could say that it was a life changing moment; that inspired by my performance I buckled down and became an honors student, and I realized all of my untapped potential, but nothing of the sort occurred. I was the all-American screw up, blessed with talent, brains and opportunity, and I was spoiled and stupid enough to squander it all.
The other night I watched the national Spelling Bee finals on ESPN. These kids are incredible, breaking down impossible words that I’d never heard of, knowing not only how to spell them but where their origin comes from, and what a syllable might mean in that original language. I can’t remember what word eventually tripped me up in 7th grade, but I can guarantee it wasn’t anything close to what these kids were breezing through.
Being the white American male that I am, I couldn’t help but take note of the fact that the eight finalists were all of Asian descent. I thought for a moment about what that meant, and the answer quickly came back to me: not a damn thing. They’re all Americans, and thank God, with intelligence like that, we’re so lucky to have them. There’s no way looking at them you can tell if they’re first generation Americans, or if their families have been here for decades, but that makes no difference, either.
I was so impressed by these kids, with their unique personalities and their incredible grace under immense pressure and their sportsmanship and class. I really enjoyed the shots of their families, the nervous and proud parents and siblings. Many of the contestants had lofty dreams of what they’d grow up to be, and they all seemed achievable.
Short features showed the contestants at home with their friends and families, and they were just kids, smiling and laughing, just like my kids did at that age, just like I did, and it struck me, this is America at its best, where kids can still be kids, where they are loved and nurtured by family, and where they can dream, and where there is still a chance their dreams will come true, no matter where they’re from, how long they’ve been here, or what the color of their skin is.
For those of us who grew up taking everything this amazing country offers for granted, watching these kids was a great reminder that this has always been our dream, and that as long as there is an America, it always will be.