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Like Father, Like Son

Balu Natarajan and his son Atman celebrate a spelling bee tradition.

spellingbee baluatman
Balu Natarajan '92, MD '96, '99 GME, winner of the 1985 Scripps National Spelling Bee, with his son Atman, who competed in the 2019 Scripps Bee, but was eliminated in the final round. Image: Monika Wnuk

By Monika Wnuk
April 30, 2019
Online Exclusives

When he was 13, Balu Natarajan ’92, ’96 MD, ’99 GME became the first child of South Asian immigrants to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee by correctly spelling the word “milieu.”

“When I was competing, I had no idea that I was representing a community,” Natarajan says. “I quickly learned that the victory was embraced by the Indian community in particular. People felt a sense of pride, the same way that I feel a sense of pride associated with being a Northwestern graduate.”

The sports medicine physician who lives in Hinsdale now spends his free time helping his 12-year-old son, Atman Balakrishnan, study for spelling bees.

“When I was 4 years old, I became interested in spelling,” says Balakrishnan. “One day, I was looking through an album and I saw an old picture of Dad holding a giant golden trophy. I knew then that I wanted to hold a golden trophy too.”

Balu coaches his son Atman to compete in the Scripps National Bee.

Atman competed in the Scripps Bee for the first time in 2018, correctly spelling “cantico” and “vitascope” in the first few rounds, but his score on a written vocabulary test kept him from advancing to the top 41. The day after learning that he would not be advancing in the competition, he started practicing for the following year. Now, a month before he returns to the Scripps stage, Atman is adding more hours of practice to his routine.

“Every day I get up at 4 a.m., take a shower and come downstairs to the kitchen to study,” says Balakrishnan. “Before 7 a.m, I’ll study, pray, eat breakfast and go to school. When I come home, I do my homework, study some spelling and eat dinner. Usually after dinner, there’s time to study a few more words before heading to bed.”

Shalini Shankar, Balu Natarajan, and Atman Balakrishnan

Shalini Shankar with Balu Natarajan and sons at 2018 Scripps Bee. COURTESY OF SHALINI SHANKAR

This level of dedication is common among elite spellers, says Northwestern anthropologist Shalini Shankar, who studies Generation Z through the lens of spelling bees.

“The arc of a spelling career starts when a child is 6 or 7 years old and becomes interested in spelling,” she says. “From there, they have to decide how much time they want to spend on it. So, whereas they may start out spending a couple of hours every couple of weeks on spelling, by the end there are kids who spend 30 hours a week on spelling preparation. They’re cycling through over a thousand words an hour, and they are doing mind-boggling educational feats in these very compact increments of time.” However, elite spellers don’t often become elite spellers on their own. For Atman, his family, teachers and friends have been instrumental in keeping him motivated.

“My dad is my main inspiration, my mom makes my schedule and makes sure I follow it, and my little brother – who also competes in spelling bees – quizzes me all the time,” he says.

spellingbee balunatarajan

Balu Natarajan in 1985. Courtesy of Balu Natarajan

While the investment of time certainly comes with the cost of being able to engage in other activities, Atman believes it will pay off.

“I hope that my spelling career will help me become an engineer just like it helped my dad through medical school and to become a doctor. And also, I want to be an inspiration to people all around the world, to show what you can do if you put your mind to something,” he says.

While he prepares to take the stage again, Atman says he’s looking forward to reconnecting with friends he met last year at the bee and meeting the new contestants. He adds that his strategy as a second-year competitor has changed.

“Last year, my first year, it was more about the experience and the excitement of being around all the elite spellers. This year, the experience will be a lot more competitive. I’m looking to take home that trophy.”

spellingbee family

From left, Advaith Balakrishnan, Meena Balakrishnan, Atman Balakrishnan and Balu Natarajan IMAGE: Monika Wnuk

Update: Atman Balakrishnan advanced to the final round of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee. He was eliminated after misspelling the word "Hanseatic," a term used in the 17th century for upper-class people from the German cities of Hamburg, Bremen, and Lübeck. 

Anthropologist Shalini Shankar studies Generation Z through the lens of spelling bees.

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