Updated: Jan 10, 2019
By Angela Arenivar.
Instead of mounting Backstreet Boys posters on my bedroom wall when I was a teenager, I opted to cover my wall with columns of words like “borborygmus” and “catarrhal” and “otorhinolaryngology.” More than anything at the age of thirteen, I wanted to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. As I began envisioning myself on the stage at Nationals, I decided that I was going to live, eat, and breathe spelling. A mischievous child, I often played with my Alpha Bits cereal during breakfast. On sunny days, my concept of going outside to play entailed writing words on the sidewalk with chalk. Whenever I could, I would incorporate my expanding vocabulary into everyday conversation and into school writing assignments.
“M’ija, no estudie tanto” (do not study too much), my father would say. I would stay in my room for countless hours, committing as many words as I could to memory. My dad would interrupt my study sessions only to tell me that it was time to eat lunch or dinner.
My parents received a third grade education in Mexico. Because they wanted their children to have access to more educational opportunities, they immigrated to the United States in 1977. Having lived the first five years of my life as a Spanish-speaker, I became particularly intrigued with words when I learned English in kindergarten.
Years later, when an Amarillo Globe-News reporter asked to speak with my parents after I qualified for the National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C., I responded that they did not speak much English. The reporter asked how I learned “all those words” if my parents did not understand English. I merely shrugged. I remember thinking, “Were my parents supposed to help me? Do other kids’ parents help them?”
Growing up, I was called “weirdo” and “nerd” by my peers. One classmate in particular regularly called me a “freak of nature.” As I became more interested in spelling, someone told me that if Michelle the genius never made it to Nationals, then neither would I.
Even though I felt out of place with my classmates, my teachers made me feel like I belonged. They assured me that I was intelligent, and they encouraged me to cultivate my interest in writing.
Mrs. Cooksey, my fourth grade teacher, persuaded me to compete in the fourth grade spelling bee, which I won. That experience sparked a sense of determination inside of me. Although there were negative influences around me, I had to drown out those voices and listen to the voice that was within me. My inner voice compelled me to do everything in my power to compete in the National Spelling Bee.
When I competed in the Scripps National Spelling Bee for the first time in 1998, I finally felt like I truly belonged with my peers. We were all verbophiles; therefore, we were all popular. People who did not love words were the “freaks” in our spelling clique. And this time no one was going to insult me and get away with it. Or maybe they could if they used a really obscure word – I might allow that. We sensed each other’s tension on the stage. We felt each other’s pain when the dreaded ding from the bell dashed our dream of winning the bee.
Traveling to Washington D.C. opened my eyes to the infinite possibilities that existed for my life. The Grand Hyatt where the contest was held was exponentially more luxurious than the Motel 6s my family and I frequented in the summers on our way to Mexico. For the first time in my life, I flew in an airplane and rode in a metro. Seeing the White House in person, and not as a backdrop on the news, left me speechless. I realized that if I worked hard, I could make my dreams come true.
I was just living my everyday life as a speller when Jeff Blitz and Sean Welch contacted me in 1999 about an opportunity to be a subject in their film about spelling bees. Because I competed in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1998, they hoped I would advance as an eighth-grader. Jeff and Sean filmed my regional spelling bee victory, which qualified me for Nationals once more. After a few years passed, I thought nothing would ever become of the project.
To my surprise, in 2002 I found out that the film Spellbound had been nominated for an Academy Award. The documentary presented the stories of seven other Scripps National Spelling Bee qualifiers from across the country.
Being a featured subject in Spellbound presented me with my fifteen minutes of fame. When I was in graduate school, I accidentally hit a cyclist named David with my car.
After I pulled over to the side of the road, David was naturally upset. In addition to the expletives he hurled at me, he asked me if I was paying attention to where I was going.
“I’m so sorry! Are you okay?” I said.
“Oh, my—YOU’RE ANGELA FROM SPELLBOUND!”
I paused. I didn’t know what to say.
“Yes, but, um, are you okay?”
“Just a little bruise on my thigh. You can barely even see it, really. What are you doing in Albuquerque?”
What if I had irreparably damaged this total stranger’s thigh? Were we really having a conversation about Spellbound after I had just hit him with my car? I didn’t know whether to feel guilty that I ran into him, or guilty that we were talking about my experience in the spelling bee.
David said there was no need to call my insurance company. He said I could repay him by editing some of his essays for his English classes. Since it was the least I could do, I gave David a ride home. We talked about my experience in the film and what my future plans were.
Unbelievable, I know, but David’s last words to me were, “It was nice to meet you, Angela!”
In order to promote Spellbound, I traveled to Chicago to be on the Oprah Winfrey Show and to Los Angeles to be on the Orlando Jones Show. When I studied in Spain during my junior year in college, I was invited to speak at a school on a military base in Stuttgart, Germany. All of this happened simply because I set out to accomplish my dream of becoming a spelling bee champion.
I now realize that being a freak of nature has been a blessing. I competed in the National Spelling Bee two years in a row. I took Latin for fun in college. I studied in Spain for a semester and have been afforded other travel opportunities. Now I am living my everyday life sharing my love of language as a Spanish teacher. To supplement my lessons, I have written songs to help my students learn words in Spanish.
Looking back on the question that the Amarillo Globe News reporter asked me, I wish I had told her that the most valuable linguistic gift my parents bestowed upon me was the Spanish language. The runner-up of the regional spelling bee misspelled “cabaña” by spelling it with a y. Thanks to my knowledge of the Spanish language, I knew to omit the “y” and was consequently given my winning word. Knowing Spanish also helped me with many of the Latin-based words I encountered in my studies.
While my parents were not capable of helping me with my homework when I was growing up, they always supported me in my endeavors and encouraged me to succeed. In spite of their third grade education, they educated me in ways no textbook ever could. Even though my parents could not fathom why I chose to spend so many hours studying words, they supported me.
Thanks, Mom, for letting me play with my Alpha Bits. And I’ll try not to study so much, Dad.
Angela Arenivar was a Scripps National Spelling Bee finalist featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound. She went on to study at Texas A&M University, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish in May 2007. Arenivar obtained her Master of Arts degree in Spanish at the University of New Mexico in May 2009. She currently teaches in Perryton, Texas, and writes a blog at http://angelainspellbound.blogspot.com.