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August 3, 2021

Cal Thomas: Zaila and the Bee

By any standard, Zaila Avant-garde is a remarkable 14-year-old girl with a positive and compelling outlook on life.

Avant-garde (her father reportedly changed her surname from Heard in honor of jazz legend John Coltrane) recently won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee, the first African American to win the highly competitive spelling contest. She told reporters afterward that she studied 13,000 words a day. A DAY!

There are many lessons that should be learned from her remarkable achievement. Here are two of them:

Former President Barack Obama tweeted: “Three Guinness World Records (related to her prowess at basketball dribbling) and now the national spelling bee champ! Congrats, Zaila — your hard work is paying off. We’re all proud of you.”

First lady Jill Biden met with some of the contestants before the final round, telling them she admired their bravery and confidence.

Hard work, bravery and confidence. Are these not among the keys to success in life? If they have proven successful throughout human history, why don’t we make them priorities in school and elsewhere instead of the “woke” agenda?

Avant-garde is the left’s worst nightmare. She reached a difficult goal through commitment and tenacity. She studied words with a coach for two years and her prize of $50,000 is likely just the beginning. If she remains on track, she is bound to achieve other goals, which include attending Harvard, playing professional basketball, and working for NASA.

Interviewed on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” she said she hopes her historic win will inspire other young Black people in the United States to excel at spelling.

People who are tenacious, overcome obstacles and succeed used to be part of the American story, a story we were happy to share to encourage others. What happened to it? Why do we focus less on success and more on envying and penalizing the successful? Why is there the constant drumbeat in our politics and most of the media about the unsuccessful and the proposals by certain politicians to throw good money after bad on programs that have mostly not worked?

While Avant-garde is the first African American to win the Bee, let’s not forget Akeelah Anderson. The 11-year-old fictional character played by Keke Palmer in the 2006 film, “Akeelah and the Bee,” also stars Angela Bassett as her mother and Laurence Fishburne as her coach.

The film contains every value we once promoted in America, including the resistance of peer pressure not to achieve, using proper English and hard work. The movie takes place in South Central Los Angeles in a gang-infested neighborhood. Akeelah’s school is so poor it can’t afford doors on the rest-room stalls. Akeelah, however, wins the Bee against all odds.

I have seen the film a dozen times and it always brings tears to my eyes.

Avant-garde has turned a fictional story into reality. That film should serve as an inspiration to help people overcome difficult circumstances and as an example of what young people can do when they strive for academic excellence.

The Washington Post quoted Avant-garde as saying: “I’m hoping that in a few years I’ll see a whole lot more African American females, and males too, doing well in the Scripps Spelling Bee. You don’t really see too many African Americans doing too well in spelling bees and that’s a bit sad, because it’s a really good thing … and kind of is a gate-opener to be interested in education.”

Avant-garde may be the key to unlock those gates, opening them much wider for many more to go through.

Email Cal Thomas at


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