Spelling the dream

Chintan Girish Modi

Are you a school teacher who feels nervous while interacting with ambitious parents? Do you wonder why they expect their children to be exceedingly high achievers? Is it amusing to notice how competitive they can get? Does it annoy you that you cannot tell them to give the children a break and let them breathe? I recommend watching a documentary film called Spelling the Dream (2020), which is currently streaming on Netflix. It might help you empathize with these parents — if not entirely, maybe just a little bit.

Directed by New York-based filmmaker Sam Rega, this movie explores the continuing success of Indian American children at the prestigious Scripps National Spelling Bee competition in the United States. Instead of treating them as a monolithic ethnic minority, it delves into the stories of four different spelling champions and their families. The parents are immigrants who pursued the American dream, the quintessential narrative of how to shine in a white man’s world. At first glance, they might appear to be adults who are putting their children through unnecessary stress. As the stories unravel, their choices seem more understandable and pragmatic.

Rega’s film avoids engaging deeply with the racism experienced by American children of Indian heritage in schools that are predominantly white. Many of them have been at the receiving end of xenophobic attacks especially from people who view them as outsiders on account of their race and skin colour. Despite having grown up in that country, they have to constantly prove their loyalty as citizens. It is perhaps this desire to belong and to assimilate that makes these parents push their children to excel in ways that will make them stand out amongst their peers.

Do you observe similar patterns among the parents you interact with? Although they may not be immigrants, where is their anxiety for their children’s futures coming from? Are they really thoughtless monsters who do not care about their children’s well-being, or is that they are simply doing what they think is best for their children? What shapes their ideas of social security and financial stability? Would it be responsible on their part to encourage their children to follow any path they like, without also alerting them about the obstacles they might face?

As an educator, who is not a parent, I find it useful to ask myself these questions. They challenge me because my default stance is to be an advocate for children rather than parents. I tend to have my head up in the clouds, so thinking along these lines gives me a reality check. I found it particularly helpful to dip into the work of Pawan Dhingra, a sociologist who is one of the many experts featured in the film. Dhingra is a professor of American Studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts. He has written an article titled ‘What Asian Americans Really Care About When They Care About Education’ (2018), published in The Sociological Quarterly.

In this article, Dhingra clarifies that the parents’ objective is “often not for children to master the skills performed in the activity” but to find avenues “in which their children can stand out amongst their peers” and to help them “gain cultural capital, such as personal confidence, communication skills, cultural tastes, etc.” Many of them were able to get to the United States by using education as a tool for social mobility. They want to ensure a safety net for their children as well. While Dhingra does not mention how caste networks and marital alliances support intergenerational transfer of social capital, this is something teachers in India must certainly reflect on.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become strikingly clear that most people fall back on their families and communities for material support since governments are either unable or unwilling to provide even basic necessities. Given the vast income inequalities in India as well as the United States, what do parents do? Dhingra remarks, “In a society without meaningful social security or welfare, adults rely on their children. They need successive generations to become economically successful. What results is a deep commitment to standing out amongst the competition, reinforced by the very real risk of having nothing.”

The author is a Mumbai-based educator, writer and researcher with an M.Phil. in English Language Education. He works on projects related to children’s literature, gender justice, queer rights and peace education. He can be reached at chintan.prajnya@gmail.com.

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