I’ve been planning to write this for a few days now, forming bits and pieces in my head. As always, life makes your plans for you.
I don’t remember exactly how the script goes, but it’s something like this: “Srinivas Ayyagari receives the A.B. with a concentration in Biochemical Sciences. He plans to…”
That was ten years ago today, on a sunny Thursday in the Quincy House courtyard at Harvard. My sophomore year bedroom window was just ahead of me in the shaded neo-Georgian corner entryway to my left, my junior and senior rooms were in the industrial hulk behind me. My whole family attended, including my nephew, born that April and on his first trip away from home. I walked across the stage as the House Tutor finished that sentence, reading the ending I had written for it a few days before. I don’t remember now how much I thought about what I put on that form, whether I agonized over it or not. I know it turned out that at least among the Quincy graduates, no one said something exactly like it. There was a deep and justified pride in what everyone chose to say, quite a few endings that sounded like “…attend medical school at…”,”…attend law school at…”,”…move to New York to work for…”,”…pursue a doctorate in…”. My point is not to say that these choices were somehow “cookie cutter” or in any way meaningless to paint myself as some maverick. In truth, I wished like hell at the time that my sentence could have ended the same way, with a place to go, a particular person to be. I wrote what I wrote because at the time it was the only thing I knew I’d be doing. In hindsight I marvel at the wisdom I was forced into.
Twenty years ago last week I was following the results of the National Spelling Bee. Not on TV, but in the (gasp) local paper. We didn’t have C-SPAN, and ESPN didn’t start broadcasting the bee until 1994. I wasn’t used to following it from afar. I exited the Bee in the 5th round in 1991, and tied for 3rd place in 1992. I placed 3rd again in 1994, in my 3rd trip to DC. But in 1993, my odd year out, I was still cut deeply by coming in 2nd place at the county bee. To the guy who would go on to win the National Spelling Bee. Wearing the speller number I would have been assigned had I won in February. And I knew every word he got at the National bee cold. On the cusp of 13, I felt that week that it should have been me, and that ridiculous “what if” lodged like an ember in my gut. Well, really, at the time I convinced myself that I knew it “should” have been me. After all, my proof ran, I’d known the word I missed at the county bee. It was an easy one. I let my concentration down for a second and it got away from me. In the short-sightedness of youth even the 3rd place on the 3rd trip, or the successes that followed, or getting to go to Harvard, never really doused that ember.
I’ve grabbed the number 3 out of convenience, not out of any narrative symbolism or mystical significance. Our life streams do not change course at neat storytelling intervals like 3 or 10 or 5. I could have spun my reflection around many different numbers. Nevertheless, a lot of meaningful 3s have arisen, often unexpectedly, in my life. My parents moved to my hometown of Memphis in 1973. The city’s spirit and history shaped my understanding of this country. I am the youngest of 3 children. My sisters have been my protectors, my support, my guides. I graduated college in 2003, though I entered with the class of 2002. My father’s father took his last rest in Hyderabad, India later in 2003, weeks after I’d visited my relatives in India for the first time since 1990. I was able to take that trip only because, against my own expectations, I wasn’t occupied with anything else at the time. And this Monday morning, on the 3rd day of June, 2013, in Memphis, my father’s mother found her final peace as well, and today her children will complete their duty toward her.
Through some strokes of luck, last Tuesday I got a little airtime on NPR to talk about my National Spelling Bee experience. On Thursday, I watched the 2013 Bee, now at National Harbor, from my apartment just a few blocks from the Capital Hilton Grand Ballroom in which I’d competed. I watched with a simple pride and happiness for those incredible kids, who took in the magnitude of their moment so much better than I had. (Robin Roberts made sure to note I looked “dejected” in ESPN’s inaugural Bee coverage.) Arvind Mahankali (who had placed 3rd the two previous years) came away a champion. Earlier that day, my friends had attended their younger sister’s graduation from Harvard, and we talked about the hope and possibility that suffuses the Square, the Yard, and the House courtyards each year.
As of Monday morning, my family is the 3 generations that have chosen to make this country their home. Now, in the waning days of my 33rd year, a few days after being able to celebrate in person the 8th birthday of my nephew’s little sister, to wear the t-shirt that she loves me to wear, to help her free her new doll from its packaging 6:30 Sunday morning, I think of what I wrote down as my plan after graduation. I wrote it because I thought I had nothing else to write, but trying my best to stay true to it has turned out, of course, to be everything.
“Srinivas Ayyagari receives the A.B. with a concentration in Biochemical Sciences. He plans to be a good uncle to his new nephew.”