July 01, 2010

spellbound -- where are they now?

If you are a fan of the movie Spellbound, you have probably asked yourself what has become of its protagonists. The Oscar-nominated documentary, loved by critics and audience alike, followed 8 children competing in the National Spelling Bee finals in 1999. Spellbound kids, where are you now?

Spelling Bee winner Nupur Lala graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Brain, Behavior, and Cognitive Science and is now a grad student at MIT, where she does research on memory formation and language processing. Go, Nupur!

Angela Arenivar
, whose parents immigrated from Mexico, is now a Spanish teacher. She graduated from Texas A&M University with a B.A. in Spanish and received an M.A. in Spanish from the University of New Mexico.

She keeps a blog called "Okay, so it's heleoplankton. Bee happy." In her most recent entry, she writes:

I am not ashamed that I come from a low-income background. Because of my dedication and intelligence, I was able to literally GO places. I was able to go to our nation's capital and capitol. I stayed in the Grand Hyatt, not in the Motel 8s my family and I did on our way to and from Mexico in the summers. I realized I was not forever destined to be poor. Why did I spend so much time studying words? Spelling made me happy, and spelling allowed me many adventures. Following my passion was my ticket out of poverty.

Neil Kadakia, whose father stressed that nothing that matters in life can be gotten without hardship , graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2007. He still lives in Orange County and is working in real estate.

April DeGideo, the serious girl from Pennsylvania who owned up to being a pessimist and who only very rarely allowed herself to imagine she'd be the winner of the National Spelling Bee, graduated from NYU in 2007 with a degree in journalism. She's now working in journalism/public relations.

Emily Stagg, who attended the spelling bee without her au pair, is currently a grad student at Yale (psychiatry/mental health). In 2006, she wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, in which she argued that it is more important to know the meaning of a word than its spelling:

If education is really what we are after, can we change the bee to make it more useful for teaching real-world skills to some of the nation's brightest students? For example, the question has been raised, why don't we make the National Spelling Bee a "definitions bee," where competitors need to know primarily what words mean rather than simply how to spell them? After all, memorization of $5 words can't be the most useful skill for these driven and capable students to develop.

Ashley White, the "angel" child (her teacher's words) from Washington, D.C., has a very poignant story, as told by the Washington Post:
Among the roughly 2,000 students who will graduate from Howard University on Saturday, one -- Ashley White -- has come a long, long way. From homelessness and teenage motherhood, she will graduate magna cum laude with a degree in television production and plans for graduate school. [...] A District spelling bee champ, she had been featured in a documentary, "Spellbound," about the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee. In the movie, the ambitious middle-schooler with a photographic memory had dreams of being an obstetrician. But, as the Post story recounted, White fell far and hard by the time the movie was released, in 2002. At age 18, she became a mother. And after bouncing among temporary homes, she landed in a homeless shelter. Despite the hardships, the young woman's dreams were unsquelched. Determined to get a college education, she was helped through Howard University by Washington Post readers, who offered her jobs, furniture and mentoring and contributed thousands of dollars to her education.

Funny man Harry Altman graduated from the University of Chicago and is now a graduate student in math at the University of Michigan.

According to various sources on the Internet, the saddest of the Spellbound stories is that of Ted Brigham, a Missouri native. He died in 2007. He was pursuing medical school at the time. The cause of his death was not released to the public.

Finally, George Thampy ("Trust in Jesus, honor your parents, work hard") went on to win the Spelling Bee in 2000. He graduated from Harvard University (with a degree in Chemistry, Health Studies, and Russian), where he also served as the director of a homeless shelter, and is now working in Investment Banking.

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