On July 8, Zaila Avant-garde became the first African American middle school to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. As many other Black women who saw themselves reflected in Zaila’s historic win, I posted the news on , 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 , 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 support.
I taught middle grammar at a small private K-8 school in Miami. For 20 years, I conducted the classroom for my school. It was a requirement.
When students reached me in the eighth grade, they had five under their belt. Most 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 . Their parents paid thousands to prepare them for high school , 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 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 neighborhoods.
Before this “Akeelah and the Bee,” , the idea of a Black girl winning a spelling bee was considered fiction. In the 2006 film 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 .
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 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 .
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.