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How A Spelling Bee Champion Got Me Back Into the Studio

Gwendolyn Zabicki

Illustration of Wendy Guey by Susan June Silanee

I had been struggling to find the motivation to paint since the first warm day of summer vacation. Inspiration came at 2 a.m. one night in June while watching a rerun of the 1996 National Spelling Bee Championship on ESPN Classic. It was one of those days when I had slept until noon and looked at my art supplies from the couch in a malaise.

From the beginning of the spelling bee, an Asian girl with large glasses and frightening maturity stole the show. Much shorter and cuter than the other 12-14-year olds, she would walk to the microphone and push her glasses up the bridge of her nose. She asked for the origin of a word with the kind of presence I would expect from an elderly doctor who had spent a lot of time working in a trauma ward. Calm, serious, confident, like singing a song in the car, I watched her spell and win.

She cried when she won and was so small she could not even hold the trophy by herself. Wendy Guey. Wendy Guey. I wanted to remember her name so I could do a Google search and maybe find out where she was now. I learned that she was my age and studying economics at Harvard. I sent her an e-mail and she agreed to have lunch and a phone interview with me.

The work that children will do to win the National Spelling Bee is unbelievable, but Wendy's parents, a risk assessment worker for an energy company and a homemaker, didn't push her to study or shuttle her to special tutors after school. Wendy's amazing spelling ability came from her love of reading. "I didn't study the dictionary. Instead I studied by reading magazines and books and underlining the words I didn't know or were difficult for me to spell."

After finishing her run in the spelling bees, she went to a performing arts high school in her hometown of West Palm Beach, Florida. As one would expect, Wendy was very active. She and other students performed at nursing homes across the county to raise money for a volunteer arts program. "It was our daily privilege to be in the arts," Wendy says.

After high school, Wendy applied to the University of Florida and Harvard University. "For me the college thing was something I hadn't spent a lot of time doing research on." Since Wendy had the kind of experiences that would have made for a perfect college application essay, I was surprised to hear those words. I had expected that getting into the right college was something she had been working on since she could read. She casually stated that she was glad she decided to go to Harvard rather than the University of Florida, which she had liked for its closeness to home. "It's not even about the classes. While it is cool that you have professors that are very respected in their fields, it's meeting the people. You are constantly inspired by the people you meet, being around that makes you try harder." My first response was immature. I felt envious. She reminded me of my experience with a student from painting class who had taught me as much as my teachers did. Wendy was truely surrounded by brilliant students.

In college, Wendy studies economics. "Harvard doesn't really have vocational majors, so economics is the overarching category that includes everything." She still hasn't decided what she's going to do with her life. In addition to economics, she's considering broadcast journalism, a law degree, or working with children. This summer, she had an equity research internship for Credit Suisse First Boston five days a week from 7 a.m. to 12:3Oa.m. "It's earning season, so there's a lot that needs to be done like data compiling and data analyzing..." I too had taken internships hoping to, but never finding a field that I wanted to spend my adult life working in. I could not resist comparing my experience in art school to hers in the Ivy League. While I could not identify with her remarkable work ethic and motivation, it did seem that we still had a lot in common. We both had lousy internships and wanted to find meaningful employment. And we both saw art making as a privilege and found our best inspiration from our peers.

She too compared her choices with mine. "I always wonder about those people who start off with a very strong passion for something. Unfortunately for me, I haven't found something that I feel very passionate about, or haven't been exposed enough to any of the areas I'm interested in to feel passionate about them. We're confronted every day with the things we have to sacrifice to get just one thing done. I learned when you want to get far in any one field you need to cut out the fat. If you want to be an expert in your field, you can't be a jack of all trades."

When our interview was over, I hung up the phone and took a nap, but later that week, I picked up a canvas that I had been too scared to touch and began to work. Was it guilt or perhaps competition that she stirred up in me? Did I take comfort in the fact that she seemed just as uncertain as I consider myself to be? Her discipline was a catalyst for at least a few hours worth of hard work, until my inspiration began to wane, and I joined my friends outside for whiffle ball and ice cream cones.