I’m really looking forward to this! As you can probably tell, Carol V. Davis and I have a few things in common. It wasn’t deliberately planned to have two poets of Russian Jewish ancestry reading on the same afternoon, but since it happened this way, there should be babka and tea, don’t you think?
The Teachers Tournament is in reruns right now–last week was the quarterfinals, and this week we have three days of semifinals and then the two-day final. So I’ll wait to finish this account until the reruns are over.
Two events for your consideration:
- Chevalier’s Books in Larchmont Village here in Los Angeles presents a reading on Thursday, September 7, at 7 PM with poets Charif Shanahan and Victoria Chang and fiction writer Siel Ju.
- I am so excited to be reading with Lisa Rosenberg at Florey’s Book Company in Pacifica, California, on the beautiful Bay Area coast. 7:30 PM, Saturday, September 16. There’s an open mic, too!
As of this writing, the Teachers’ Tournament has been over for about six weeks, a few dozen more contestants have come down the pike, and we’re heading into the last month or so of Season 33. It’s also summer, so I have time to finish up this narrative. Let’s get going.
The three semifinal games were taped in the morning of taping day #2. After fetching a large cup of coffee from the lobby (where I ran into George and his adorable toddler daughter), I got all the way down to the hotel lobby and just past the unnerving waxwork of Robert Pattinson before realizing I’d left my extra outfits upstairs. Fortunately, I was a little early and had time to go back up and grab them. Then it was on to the bus and off to the studio for the ten of us–nine semifinalists and Dennis, who, as the highest-scoring quarterfinalist without a wild card spot, was our official alternate for the day.
I don’t remember a lot about the morning except that it seemed more relaxed than the previous day, with no contestant briefing on the bus and no flurry of paperwork. We got our makeup done, of course, and I’m pretty sure we had a short rehearsal with the buzzers before the audience arrived, once again at 11:15.
I had fewer people in the audience than on the day we taped the quarterfinals because my former students and their friends weren’t attending, and my daughter couldn’t miss school because she had the second-to-last band concert of the year in the evening (which we drove straight to after the taping). But I still had my husband, mom, and cousins.
Another difference between the first and second taping days was that we no longer had to be sequestered. Gail, Sara and David were called to the first game, and the rest of us sat in the audience to watch until just before Final Jeopardy!, when Eduardo, Susannah and I were called to get miked and touched up for the second game. We watched Final Jeopardy! on a monitor in the greenroom. David was ahead with $17,600, but Gail and Sara were also very much in the game with $12,600 and $13,200:
THE PULITZER PRIZES: In 1947 a journalist from the Washington Post became the last to win a Pulitzer for national reporting by this means
The reveal of the answers turned out to be a nailbiter as there was some delay while the judges determined that they would accept David’s answer, “telegram,” as well as Sara’s “telegraph.” He had originally written “telegraph,” crossed it out and written “telegram,” and for a moment it looked as though he had talked himself out of the right answer. But it was accepted, and David became the first finalist.
The previous day, Susannah and I had discovered that we attended the same school, McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Maryland, graduating thirteen years apart and having a number of the same teachers. She’d even had one of my best friends from high school, who had returned to teach there, as her freshman physics teacher. Even weirder, both of our mothers had worked at the school, and both were present at the taping–they’d recognized one another in the audience on the first taping day. Now she and I took up our positions at the first and second podium, with Eduardo taking the third–a real Mid-Atlantic lineup, with two of us being from Maryland and Eduardo from the Virginia suburbs of D.C.
Susannah was quick out of the gate, running the “You’re So Possessive!” category and notching a true Daily Double of $1,200. Once again, I started slow on the buzzer, not successfully ringing in until the tenth question, and came into the Double Jeopardy! round with $3,400 after misidentifying San Bernardino County as San Diego. I’m sure both Susannah and I rued not beating Eduardo to the buzzer on a clue about the original title of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Defense of Fort _____,” since there’s hardly a child in Baltimore County who isn’t taken on a field trip to Fort McHenry, but the round went so fast that we didn’t have time for regrets. I still felt frustrated by the buzzer as Susannah and Eduardo made short work of a “Theatre” category and answered the first four “TV Campus” questions, but at least I captured the $2000 question, about the TV show based on Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians (I’d heard Lev speak at the Antioch University MFA residency a couple of years ago). Still, slightly more than halfway through Double Jeopardy! I was still significantly behind, with $6,200 to Susannah’s $9,600 and Eduardo’s $12,200.
All through my preparation for the show, I’d tried to steel myself against the possibility of falling behind in my score, panicking and ringing in to guess at questions I didn’t know. I’d been struck by how many winners claimed that they didn’t look at their score between commercial breaks, and indeed, the game moves so fast that arguably looking at your score is a dangerous distraction except when you need it to wager. So at this point I doubt I recognized how far behind I was–I just kept looking at the board and trying to ring in when I knew the answer. I answered the first question in “-Isms and -Ologies” (“This religious movement centered in Jamaica is based on the idea of an African messiah”*) and then hit a Daily Double on the next question in the category.
And here’s where I really owe Keith Williams a beer, because if I hadn’t been following The Final Wager I don’t know that I would have had the guts to bet all but $1,000 of the $6,600 I had then. I saw that I had a chance to catch up with Eduardo, that it was a category I felt reasonably confident in, and that even if I didn’t get the question, there was still enough on the board that it wasn’t absolutely impossible for me to make up the loss (although even if there hadn’t been, it was still the right move, because you want to be in the lead going into FJ, and because FJ is almost always harder than a Daily Double). So I bet $5,600–I think Alex repeated the number with a touch of surprise–and I got this question:
The two similar-sounding words for the study of insects and the study of word origins
and I very carefully enunciated “What are entomology and etymology?” and tied Eduardo for first place.
The rest of the game was fast and furious–I was surprised at how exciting it was when I watched it a couple of months later in the back room of a pub with a bunch of friends and a few students who are my daughter’s friends (coincidentally, they’d had their last concert of the year, an afternoon outdoor jazz performance, on the night my semifinal game aired). I knew the outcome, of course, but I didn’t realize how suspenseful it would be to watch it. There were even questions I didn’t remember getting! So much luck involved–I seemed to get lucky on the buzzer for the higher-value questions and miss the lower ones. I was frustrated not to be able to answer the $2,000 Triple Stumper in the “Awful World Leaders” category–I could remember Rita Dove’s masterful poem “Parsley,” which is about the cruelty of Rafael Trujillo, but in the moment I couldn’t think of his name. But I went into Final Jeopardy! in first place with $18,200.
SCULPTURE: The book From Marble to Flesh is a biography of this statue that was created from 1501 to 1504
Well. I immediately thought of Michelangelo’s David. Not knowing the exact dates, I cast around in my mind for something else it could be. The only other one I could think of was the Pietà, and, well, the David just has so much more flesh. It was a bit unnerving, feeling that it had to be the right answer but not coming up with a more solid reason why. However, we all got it, and I became a finalist with a winning score of $23, 601 (a dollar more than if Eduardo had doubled).
After the tournament aired, several of the contestants converged on Dallas/Fort Worth for a mini-reunion on Memorial Day weekend–David lives there, Lindsey drove in from Waco, and Mary and Cody came down from Arkansas. I went too, seizing the opportunity to also catch up with a friend from college who lives in Fort Worth. With David, Mary, and Cody in the gift shop at the Dallas Museum of Art, I bought two pairs of these and sent them to Susannah and Eduardo:
*Rastafarianism (another word I pronounced very carefully).
Are you noticing that the 2017 Teachers Tournament group is not visibly diverse? Because I did. And am.
I’m glad I got to be in it–so glad! And I’m grateful to have met these delightful people, whom I now consider friends. They are a kind group of dedicated educators representing different regions of the country (from Vermont, Arkansas, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Virginia, California, Texas, Michigan, Maryland), different communities (urban, suburban, rural) and schools that vary greatly in size, organization, and philosophy. We had, and continue to have, some wonderful conversations drawing on our varied backgrounds and experiences.
But we also reflect an important issue in American education right now, which is that more than 80% of teachers are white, even as students of color have become a majority in public schools:
Few would say that a black child needs to be taught by a black teacher or that a Latino or Asian child cannot thrive in a class with a white teacher. “Ultimately, parents are going to respect anybody who they think cares for their kids,” said Andres Antonio Alonso, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “But if there are no people who somehow mirror the parents and the kids, then I think there could be a problem.” (Motoko Rich, “Where Are the Teachers of Color?”)
I am not exaggerating when I say that in four years as a department chair, I have helped hire more faculty of color than I was taught by in my first thirteen years of education. I did not have a black teacher until college, when I had one (James Snead, of blessed memory).
Why this is so is not simple. The linked article cites pay, working conditions, lack of autonomy to make changes to benefit students.
Jeopardy! itself has become more visibly diverse since the days when Maya Angelou called out the program in 1995 for only rarely having Black contestants. Among the show’s most successful contestants of recent years are some who are African American or biracial. You may remember, for example, Teen Tournament semifinalist Brandon Saunders, who is currently on what looks like a campaign to conquer every game show in the U.S., or possibly the world; Matt Jackson, who has the fourth longest winning streak in Jeopardy! history and who told Alex Trebek, “My mother is white, liberal and Jewish, and my dad is black, Christian and conservative”; and, of course, Colby Burnett, the Chicago history teacher who is, so far, the only Teachers Tournament winner to also win the Tournament of Champions.
And yet the group I auditioned with in Los Angeles, a city that is now almost half Latino or Hispanic, 10% Asian, and almost 10% Black or African American, appeared predominantly white and Asian.
And it’s still a matter for comment when an African American or Latino contestant appears on the show, let alone wins. Particularly if she is a woman.
I asked Kaberi from last year’s tournament for her thoughts–you may recall from my previous posts that she teaches bilingual students in a Chicago suburb, and she’s South Asian–and here’s part of her response:
One of Newton’s Laws of Physics say, essentially, objects will continue to do whatever they are doing until some force is applied to change that. I think the same is true of game show contestants. If minorities are underrepresented in the potential contestant pool, the show runners should seek them out, make sure they are in a position to audition successfully, even develop programs for young minority children to develop their knowledge base.
And this is especially true for the Teachers Tournament. Why? Because the Teachers Tournament shows are by far the most likely to be watched by young people, the shows’ future contestants. And if Latino or African American or other minority students don’t see contestants who look like them, they will inevitably come to the conclusion that they don’t belong in that community.
And the reverse is also true. In the same way that Barack Obama’s presidency was powerful for the simple fact that he existed, that African American students could watch TV every day for 8 years and see a black man in the Oval Office, they would inevitably conclude that this was possible for them as well. But, like Newton’s law, this is something that will not change on its own. It needs a force to make it change, and that force will have to come from the show’s producers.
I love the way she frames this with Newton, don’t you?
Looking at the show’s social media advertising for the upcoming contestant test, it seems to me that they’re trying hard to send a message of inclusivity. Now that I’m looking for those short “What can you do in 13 minutes?” videos that have been popping up in my Facebook feed, of course I can’t find them, but I seem to remember the featured actors are young and nonwhite (a reminder that Jeopardy! needs to keep building its future viewership). I definitely saw Ian from last year’s Teachers Tournament, who is African American, in one of the photo ads, and, as I’ve mentioned, Chris from Pennsylvania:
There’s a lot more in play than what the become-a-contestant ads look like, of course. I’ve written a lot in these blog posts about not being ready to risk failure, having to surmount fears of looking stupid, coming to believe that neither a win or loss would mean anything about me. Stereotype threat is a factor for me because I’m a woman, and at some level, I’m sure I still believe that the people who are really good at trivia are nerdy white men, despite plenty of experiences to the contrary, including playing on a trivia team with two women multi-day champions and having seen Colby Burnett demolish the competition at TCONA. And I’m a significantly privileged woman, with perhaps a bit of stereotype boost from being Jewish?–and even with many advantages conferred by color and class and education, there have been obstacles:
- The fear of being shamed for aspiring in the first place: “Who do you think you are?”
- The fear of being shamed for falling short: “You didn’t prepare enough/try hard enough/know enough,” all conducing to “You’re not enough.”
- The fear of letting the group down: “You’re supposed to be a teacher, and you didn’t know that?”
And something I haven’t really mentioned here yet:
- The fear of becoming the target of some sort of online (let alone real-world) vitriol, as seems to happen more often to women (see Talia Levin’s piece for Broadly), transgender people, gay men and lesbians who mention their partners on air (just read the Jeopardy! Facebook page comments), and, though I haven’t found much written about it, almost certainly to women and men of color as well, if Viraj Mehta’s experience after becoming famous for possibly accidentally flipping the bird while explaining differential geometry is any indication. (On those Facebook comments, you’ll sometimes also see viewers complaining about too much black history in the questions–you get the sense that any black history, or any implication that American history is black history, is going to be too much for some people.)
These aren’t things to be overcome by ourselves and within ourselves alone, even though some of us will be able to overcome them without much apparent help. If we want to nurture students’ interest in engineering, we create opportunities for kids to learn robotics and chances for them to cooperate with and compete against one another; if we want to send a synchronized swimming team to the Olympics, we find coaches, look for the talent, get the talent in the pool. I think this goes for teachers–a profession for which, in this country, we do very little to cultivate and nurture talent–and for Jeopardy! contestants as well.
It’s great to have the airing of the quarterfinal game behind me! I was kind of anxious and keyed up last week. I felt weird and exposed and everything was heightened and I had trouble with naming the feelings I was having. (I actually wrote a poem, years ago, about the attribution of emotion; it’s the title poem of my first book, Rope Bridge.) Maybe there just isn’t a word for the emotion of achieving a long-held goal while also feeling unpleasantly exposed by the very medium in which that goal has to be accomplished. (You know, publishing a first book is a little bit like that. But it was a book of poems, so the exposure was objectively much, much smaller.)
We held the viewing party in the library at school and I cannot think of one thing that would have made it more awesome. We had students, pizza, a giant prop check from Farmers Insurance Thank America’s Teachers, people from Jeopardy!, a local Farmers agent handing out prizes at commercial breaks, and–fantastic surprise!–Jimmy from the Clue Crew.
— Jeopardy! (@Jeopardy) May 12, 2017
We also invited people to play along and pledge money for their correct answers to the Friends of Kayany, a U.S. group that supports the Kayany Foundation in its efforts to provide education and nutrition to Syrian refugee children living in Informal Tented Settlements in Lebanon. It was really fun to watch the students and staff play along and cheer one another’s correct answers. And we raised over $2000!
Although I remembered little from the taping of the game, I did remember that it had taken me a little while to start buzzing in, partly because I needed to let a bunch of TV DRAMAS questions go by and then I needed to get lucky on the buzzer. I think people at the viewing party had time to get worried, because they gave me a big round of applause when I finally rang in (category: ONCE UPON A TIME) on the clue In some versions of the fairy tale, she survives only after the woodsman cuts open the wolf and frees her. It was as if they were worried I might not get anything after “Little Red Riding Hood.”
I could feel people relax after I got a few clues in a row in the category THIS IS “US.” I know I had a really odd look on my face for the Daily Double question in that category: Violinist Jascha Heifetz was born in this Baltic capital in 1901. The reason is that we’d just heard the name Vilnius that morning in the contestant briefing. I remembered it as an example of how, if you don’t know the pronunciation of a word, you should try to pronounce every letter. Andy Saunders of The Jeopardy Fan just reminded me (before this evening’s Live Panel roundtable, which you can watch here) of an instance when a contestant transposed two letters and wrote VILNUIS, which was ruled incorrect. I believe that was part of the briefing, too. So when I looked puzzled, answered the question, and then glanced at Michael and Lindsey, it was an “Are we being punked?” moment–in my head, anyway. I know it wasn’t intentional–the contestant coordinators don’t get anywhere near the questions, and I’m pretty sure I’d heard the same example in the previous year’s briefing (with no mention of the Baltic or Heifetz). It was just one of those weird coincidences. Nice, though, to learn that I share ancestry with Heifetz–my great-grandparents were Jews from Lithuania. (Although I’m definitely no Heifetz.)
Looking at the scores going into Final Jeopardy!, I am surprised that I bet to win the game. I had $15,400, which was almost certainly going to be good enough for a wild card. I remember seeing that the category FOREIGN WORDS AND PHRASES and knowing that Michael, who had $11,400, taught Spanish and had studied French and Portuguese. I figured that he would bet to win, and that if I could get it, he would almost certainly get it too. It was still a risk to bet, but it turned out okay:
Often used to describe artists ahead of their time, it was also the name of a youth militia in WWII Vichy France.
As so often happens, getting this one wasn’t really about knowledge, more about parsing the question correctly and making a lucky connection. Everyone I know who didn’t get this nevertheless knew the term, including Lindsey (who put ingénue, a much more resourceful guess than I would have been able to make if it hadn’t come to me). But both Michael and I put avant-garde; I won the game, but he boosted his score to $14,800 and in the end we both made it to the semifinals. I play Tuesday, he on Wednesday.
Have you signed up for the online test yet? Here’s Chris, one of last year’s semifinalists and a teacher from Pennsylvania, urging you to take the 13-minute test that could change your life:
Well, tomorrow is the big day! I play Michael, a Spanish teacher from Chicago, and Lindsey, a first-grade teacher from Waco, Texas, in the Thursday game. Which means we taped after lunch (since all five quarterfinal games were shot on one day), and were sequestered in the green room so that we didn’t know what the score to beat for a wild-card slot would be. After Wednesday’s game, Sara, Eduardo, Graham, and Cody are still in the running, and the score to beat is Cody’s $6,800–but we didn’t know that.
The morning movie this time was Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, which I always thought I hated–what’s entertaining about a frustrating series of travel delays?–but which turns out to be a sensitively acted and really very touching movie which I guess I just didn’t appreciate as a college sophomore.
I actually did want to say a bit more about the run-up to the Teachers Tournament this year. A couple of months before the actual taping, I tapered off on the “studying” and, without really planning to, found myself thinking a lot more carefully about the actual gameplay. I’d already been playing along standing up, clutching a toilet-paper spindle in lieu of a buzzer, and I’d developed a little mindful-breathing exercise to counteract the small adrenaline surge I’d begun to experience upon hearing the show’s theme music. I used College Champion Keith Williams’s blog The Final Wager to learn basic wagering strategy and practiced Final Jeopardy! wagering while I watched the game. (They give you a pen and paper on the show to do your wagering math.) In early February, I had a tiny epiphany watching Lisa Schlitt win six games in a row: I realized that I knew nearly everything she rang in on, and some questions that stumped all three players in her games, so clearly what I’d heard and read was true:
Everyone who goes on Jeopardy! knows enough to win.
I understood this intellectually, but for some reason it hadn’t completely sunk in until I watched Lisa play and look for all the world as if she was having fun. Yes, there are players who seem to know everything, but no one knows everything, and everyone has scored pretty high on the same challenging test. If you look at the statistics on The Jeopardy! Fan, you’ll see that often all three contestants have answered nearly the same number of questions.
It’s the damn buzzer,
people say, and those people have a point. (This explains how the buzzer works and why the race is not always to the swift.) Some games, all three players manage to ring in about a third of the time. Some games, one player seems to have the rhythm, or has it and then loses it, or doesn’t have it and then manages to pick it up. It’s the buzzer, but it’s also which question values you manage to ring in on. This is stunningly obvious, but the question values double as you go down the board, from $100 to $200 to $400–if I answer the first two questions in a category, and you answer the third, you are $100 ahead of me while answering fewer questions. The buzzer, the question values, and the wagering introduce elements of uncertainty that are hard to appreciate from home, or at least they were for me.
I’m not sure why this made me feel a little bit calmer. I think it comes down to finally being able to accept that I could win or lose and understanding at a gut level that either outcome would be fine–which, as I’ve said, I wasn’t ready to believe when I first tried out for the show. Neither outcome would be a referendum on my intelligence, my preparation, or anything else about me.
I’ve been struck, over the last few weeks, by how many people’s comments about the impending show have been some version of
“Wow, I could never do that.”
These are bright, curious, interested people, a few of the millions who enjoy playing along with Jeopardy! at home. Press a little and it turns out that they’re thinking along the same lines I was fifteen years ago–anxiety about being wrong in front of other people, the fear of looking stupid, the terror of shame.
I haven’t left these things behind, but I’m a middle-aged woman now, and I suppose I’ve had enough experiences of being sorry about letting fears hold me back from something I wanted to do.
Also, I’m a teacher. I risk looking like a fool all the time. I also want to model for my students openness and bravery and the willingness to fail.
I have more thoughts about this, but I will save them until after you see my game. Check your local listings! Also, at our viewing party, we will be asking people to play along and pledge (maybe $1?) for each correct answer to Friends of Kayany, the US nonprofit that supports the Kayany Foundation in providing education to Syrian refugee children living in informal tented settlements in Lebanon. We have a student who has been very involved with this organization. You can learn more at their website.
And we’re off! Gail won Monday’s game, but both George and Graham have a shot at a wild card berth. That was a tough Final Jeopardy! question in the category A YEAR OF FIRSTS: Year in which the Dept. of Energy was created, the Indy 500 had its first female driver, and the first President was sworn in under a nickname. I think my thought process would have been “Bill Clinton!–no, it has to be earlier than Bill Clinton–Jimmy Carter? Then why do I know his full name, James Earl Carter? Janet Guthrie. The energy crisis. Definitely seventies”–and that’s about when the time would have run out.
There’s not a lot to tell you about the run-up to the 2017 tournament, actually. We all got formally booked in December, and February was Paperwork Month. Sony sent us video cameras to tape ourselves explaining what we planned to do with our Thank America’s Teachers grants, so I also had to get my students and their parents to sign releases for their appearance on that video. (Can’t wait to see what our clip looks like on TV! One of my students, an aspiring filmmaker, served as director/camera operator.) The hotel was the same, except that a life-size figure of Robert Pattinson had been installed opposite the check-in desk as an advertisement for Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. I ate dinner alone at the Universal Citywalk Pink’s (my first Pink’s experience, actually) the night before. And didn’t have as much trouble falling asleep.
Jeopardy! wasn’t the only part of the trivia subculture I experienced in 2016. In June, Chris, Len and Lisa took me along to the local sitting of the World Quizzing Championships, a two-hour pen-and-paper test that was humbling in the breadth of its reference, but also hugely fun to take–the two hours flew by.
In August, egged on by Jill, the second runner-up in the tournament, and by Jim, a writer and King Trivia quizmaster I met through Chris and Len, I went to the grandly titled Trivia Championships of North America (TCONA), an annual event in Las Vegas (in August!), where I played on a Quiz Bowl team and in a couple of other competitions with Kaberi (who’d finished the tournament as the first runner-up, second only to Jason). Except for It’s Academic, I’d never done anything remotely like Quiz Bowl, and after all my Jeopardy! practice, in which you have to wait for Alex to finish asking the question, I was startled to find how fast people rang in, rather like the Frantics episode spoofing Reach for the Top.
Other games were more my speed–Last Quizzer Standing, the TCONA edition of the O’Brien’s Pub Quiz, and Learned League Live, a live version of the venerable online trivia league, which I also began playing in the fall, egged on by several of the Teachers Tournament players, and navigating the rookie season alongside others.
As I’ve descended farther into the subculture, and particularly as I’ve met or simply observed some people whose knowledge is truly astounding, I’ve been thinking about the relationship of “knowing trivia” to “being an educated person.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who worries that our students, and people in general, will absorb a false equivalency in which “knowing trivia” equals “being smart,” whatever that is. What I’d really like them to know instead:
- Some people’s brains naturally do a really good job of seizing, cataloguing, retaining, and retrieving information. People who are interested in improving their abilities in these areas can do so. The ability to use this information intelligently is separate.
- Labeling a piece of information “trivia” is not an absolute judgment, rather in the way that a medication’s “side effects” are really just effects. There are many contexts in which Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar is not trivial. However, in a category titled BRITISH NICKNAMES (“The Hero of Trafalgar”) or JUST A WORD BEFORE GOING (At Trafalgar he reportedly said, “Thank God I have done my duty” and then expired), it is.
- When “trivia people” are very bright and interesting to talk to, it is not because they have acquired a lot of facts; it’s because they are the kind of people who have the ability to become interested in almost anything, which is what led them to acquire a lot of facts in the first place.
- What I most want to preserve and nourish in my students is this ability to become interested. Sometimes it comes through the head, sometimes through the heart, but eventually you need both in order to learn.
It’s time for me to go and watch the first night of the 2017 Teachers Tournament, so I’ll leave the last word to Edith Hamilton, classicist and author of Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. She made this observation to the Saturday Evening Post, and a past colleague kindly shared it with me:
It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little stress is laid upon the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up in the world of thought–that is to be educated.
Being an alternate for the Teachers Tournament in February, 2016, had some cool perks. Like the 15 tournament contestants, I would stay in a hotel at the show’s expense (unlike regular contestants, who travel to and stay in LA on their own dime), ride a shuttle to the Sony studios in Culver City, and be present as the five quarterfinal games were filmed on one day. The second week of shows–the three semifinal games and the two finals–would be taped on a second day in Washington, D.C., in early April, and the ten games would air consecutively in early May. I would receive a per diem allowance and, if I wasn’t needed to play, a small thank-you check. My school was great about giving me the time off, counting it as a professional absence, and people were very supportive. I completed several multiple-page forms (release form, tax forms, teacher information form, a form where you list five fun stories that Alex could ask you about), scanned and emailed them back, and kept studying.
I knew that the overwhelming likelihood was that I wouldn’t play, but I made sure to schedule brunch the weekend before with Gillian, Chris, and Lisa to get their advice–Chris and Lisa because they’d been on the show, of course, and Gillian because we’ve been friends for 30 years, she watches the show regularly, and she gives great advice! We went over wagering strategy and Chris and Lisa gave me some what-to-expect tips. I learned that even as an alternate, I’d get to step up to the podium and practice ringing in during rehearsal.
Lisa gave me what I still think of as the best piece of advice: “You can win on Jeopardy! without answering a lot of questions,” she said. “You feel like you have to answer everything, but you don’t.” It was more important, she said, not to panic and ring in on questions you don’t know. (Remember this. It’s important later.)
The tournament hotel was the Universal Hilton, which is nowhere near Sony Studios, but it was a thoughtful choice because it’s one place in LA that you can stay and actually walk to a major attraction (Universal Studios and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter). Matt took me there the afternoon before and we walked over to Universal Citywalk, a theme-park-ish outdoor mall, where we spent part of the per-diem check on dinner at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., a place I had never eaten before or have since.
Falling asleep was surprisingly difficult–I felt keyed up and couldn’t resist playing some online map quizzes, checking my school email, and other activities not conducive to sleep. But, conditioned by my usual 5:30 school-year wake-up time, I also had no trouble waking up the next morning to dress in my hypothetical on-camera outfit and meet the contestant coordinators in the lobby. They gave us our final pieces of paperwork, checked us in, and loaded us onto a bus. Here we are! They didn’t even make me ride in the back! I sat with Nicole, a high school English teacher from Virginia:
Now here are two things that pretty much all Jeopardy! narratives include:
- The contestant coordinators/contestant producers are fantastic.
Glenn, Robert, Corina, and their amazing chief, Maggie, made us laugh, cajoled us, encouraged us, and made sure the game is played fair. Everyone is looking out for fairness, both because of the laws around quiz programs, and because of basic decency. However they hire staff on the show and however they run the program day to day, they do it right. Everyone I had anything to do with was delighted to be there. They give money away every day, and that’s their job. —Glenn Fleishman, on BoingBoing
Maggie in particular is a human amphetamine, and her epic hour-plus pre-game pep talk is sufficiently energizing that it would not be out of place on an episode of Hard Knocks. —L.V. Lopez, on Frontier Psychiatrist.
I’ve been looking for this one story which does a particularly great job of describing how Maggie, in particular, takes a bunch of slightly-to-severely-inward nerds and makes them TV-ready, but I haven’t been able to find it. I just want to add that they–in our case, Maggie, Corina, Glenn, and Aimee–really seemed to get that for each contestant, a day on Jeopardy! is a peak experience, and they never seemed to let on that for them it is a job and maybe someone on staff is being annoying and maybe they’re worried about something outside of work and maybe the coffee was bad that morning. They were like Bruce Springsteen giving his all to Akron, Ohio–“Howyadoin, Akron!” like there’s no place he’d rather be.
(Which, actually, is kind of true of teaching, also. You cannot act like one day is Paris and one day is Akron.)
(Akron, please don’t be mad.)
2. The atmosphere is camaraderie, not competition.
Arthur Chu is right: you definitely try your hardest to win, whatever that means to you and whatever that looks like at home. But almost everyone I know who has been on Jeopardy! has stayed in touch with the people they met on their tape day. The shared experience makes a powerful bond, maybe particularly because it’s relatively unusual to meet anyone who has had the same experience. (I’m getting ahead of myself a bit now, but now that I’ve played, I do feel a tiny echolocating ping of familiarity when I meet someone else who has been on the show.)
This is probably extra true of the Teachers Tournament because we also all share a profession and therefore had plenty to talk about from the first minute. Anyway, here with Alex Trebek is the 2016 group, all of whom followed Maggie’s jocular advice not to let me get anywhere near their coffee, “because if you go down, Nan gets to play!”:
I had my eye on Ian, a social studies teacher from the Valley (here on the far right of the back row), because he had been the previous year’s alternate, and I was hypothesizing (hopefully) that he would have an edge as a returning contestant. We chatted a little and he did seem very calm. It turned out that he taught at the same charter school as one of my former colleagues. Another, geographically weirder coincidence: Hannah, a math teacher (on the far right of the front row), had attended a summer institute the previous year with one of my current colleagues. Terrie, in light blue in front of Alex, taught social studies in Maryland, my home state, and lived in Pennsylvania not far from Gettysburg, where I taught for a year. And Cory from Connecticut, in the front row, far left, had an MFA in fiction and, like me, would attend the Associated Writing Programs conference in D.C. the following year.
I should mention that not all Jeopardy! contestants really are inward nerds. Some of us are extrovert nerds. It’s definitely a teacher type, and one example is Jason, in the back row, upper left.
Or perhaps you remember him at the end of the 2016 Teachers Tournament:
Of course, that didn’t happen until April, and I had to wait until the episodes aired in May to find out most of what happened that day. Unlike regular Jeopardy! contestants, who get to watch games from the audience, tournament contestants are sequestered in the greenroom on the first day until it’s their turn to play. The reason for this is that not only do the winners of the quarterfinal games advance to the semifinals, so do the four highest-scoring non-winners. To know the scores preceding your game would be an unfair advantage to those who play later, so they’re kept separate. As an alternate, I would stay in the greenroom until the last three quarterfinalists went onstage, watching movies with the sound turned up so that we couldn’t hear anything revealing from the stage.
First, though, we were instructed to turn off our cell phones and sent three at a time into makeup while Maggie continued our briefing. She had already, facing backwards on the bus as the driver, Ernie, negotiated a picturesque surface-streets route through Hollywood and the Fairfax district to Culver City, briefed us on the day and on many of the niceties of gameplay, including the rules about what constitutes a complete, correct or incorrect answer; how to give an answer if you’re not sure of the pronunciation (enunciate every letter); and how to write down your Final Jeopardy! answer if you’re not sure of the spelling (represent every sound). She’d also told a number of stories about tricky rulings and favorite contestants and made us laugh a lot. Now she and a representative from an outside auditor explained that we had the right to contest a ruling if we thought we’d given the right answer and how to do it (at the next commercial break). We also met representatives from Farmers Insurance’s Thank America’s Teachers program, which gave $2500 grants to each contestant for use at their schools.
Finally, we trooped out to the set to get briefed on how the light pens and buzzers work, to practice writing our names, and to ring in on a mock game in which Glenn played Alex Trebek and the questions were easy, although not so easy that we didn’t get some wrong. My first successful ringing-in was in the category NURSERY RHYMES. The clue, about “Hey Diddle Diddle,” was something like “This ran away with the spoon,” and I said, “What is the fiddle?” instead of “What is the dish?” Fortunately, they let you practice until you’ve rung in and answered successfully a few times.
Here are some of the things I remember from standing on the stage: People tell you that it’s smaller than it looks on TV, but it was bigger than I expected and the board was farther away. The buzzer is also larger than I expected and I was most comfortable holding it with two hands. (There are many schools of thought on how to hold the buzzer.) Contestants stand on platforms that can be raised and lowered so that everyone’s head is at about the same level regardless of their actual height, and the stage personnel are very concerned that you’ll forget you’re on a platform and fall off, so you get helped down like a Victorian lady descending from her carriage, even if you’re only six inches off the floor. (Usually right after the extremely calm and kind microphone technician stops you from walking away still attached to the podium by your rehearsal microphone wire.) Finally, it’s chilly in the studio so that you remain cool and dry. If you ever watch from the audience, bring a sweater.
Families and friends had been told to arrive at 11:15. Matt came to watch, and so did Chris and her sister, T. Chris was also looking forward to seeing Maggie, who had already reminisced with me about Chris’s previous appearances on the show and the Tournament of Champions. Contestants aren’t supposed to make contact with their families and friends, so they herded us back to the greenroom and let us know that the first three contestants would be Lauren, Dianne, and Chris. Those three got mics attached (cordless this time, connected to a waist pack by a wire that runs down the back of your shirt–this is why you should not wear a one-piece dress on Jeopardy!), makeup touched up, and a huge round of applause from the rest of us as they headed out to the set.
Aimee quickly distracted us like a babysitter with a bunch of preschoolers by pulling out a stack of DVDs, and we settled in to watch The Princess Bride, enlivened–or ruined, depending on your perspective–by her caustic commentary. (I have to agree, Buttercup really is a pretty lousy girlfriend.) We chatted, snacked, made many visits to the bathroom (there are two). I peeked into the flimsy partitioned-off changing area where, on a normal tape day, the winner changes clothes to preserve the illusion that a day has gone by between games. (It’s usually more like ten minutes.) There’s a star on the door that says “Jeopardy! Champion,” but inside it’s basically a closet with a chair.
Somehow, the morning went by. Greg, Jason, and Nicole were whisked away for game two, then Jill, Hannah, and Ian for game three. Lunch was brought in for the remaining six contestants, our custodian Aimee, and me. The pizza and sandwiches were good, but I was a little disappointed not to get to go to the Sony commissary, which figures in so many contestant narratives. Aimee put in a new movie–Iron Man, which was much funnier than I expected–and Maggie came to fetch Pete, Tenaya, and Terrie. So the final group, and the only one I would get to watch, would be Kaberi, Cory, and Bill. Once they were standing behind their podiums, Corina sent me into the audience to sit with the rest of the contestants.
Chris, Jason, Jill, and Pete had won their games and would be semifinalists; so would Lauren and Nicole, with scores of $11,000 and $5,000. The scores for the two runners-up to beat were Terrie’s $1,300 and Tenaya’s $600, but of course Kaberi, Cory, and Bill didn’t know that. Tournament cut-off scores have varied wildly–Keith Williams has a 2015 chart on his blog, The Final Wager, that shows cut-offs between $4,000 and $18,000 since Season 21–and while it’s rational to aim for $10,000 to $12,000, like so many other things on Jeopardy!, you just can’t know.
I’d actually been in a Jeopardy! audience once before–I’d gone over spring break the previous year, reserving free tickets online for me, my daughter and one of her friends. I’d taken the online test and wanted to see what the taping was like. So sitting in the audience was familiar, except that now I was watching people I’d spent the whole day with. I knew that Kaberi had fallen in love with the Spanish language on a junior year abroad in Spain and taught bilingual kindergarten in Chicago. I knew about Cory’s young son and Bill’s special-education students. I wasn’t rooting for any one of them more than the others–I just wanted them all to play well and have fun.
As it turned out, they did. Going into Final Jeopardy! (category: AUTHORS), Kaberi and Cory were neck and neck at $8,600 and $8,400, but Bill led them both with $13,600.
The clue: She wrote in her journal in 1867 that a publisher “asked me to write a girls’ book. Said I’d try.” * Kaberi bet modestly, $3000, and raised her score to $11,600. Cory, an English teacher, made a gutsy bet–all but $2–and it paid off: $16,798. Bill made a conservative bet of $3601, probably hoping to stay above the cutoff. He didn’t come up with the answer and dropped to $9,999, but all three of them went on to the semifinals, knocking out Nicole and Terrie. (Terrie got to go to D.C. as the alternate for the second taping day.)
We all went up onstage and took pictures and milled around. The semifinalists did interviews for the show’s website. (All those promos are still here.) Maggie made sure I took a photo with Alex.
“Would you want to come back for next year’s tournament?” she asked.
“If I have a choice, yes!” I said.
“Well, we’ll see,” she said. “But we’re looking forward to having you back to play!”
Matt and I went out to dinner with Chris and T before driving back over the hill to collect my stuff from the hotel, and they filled me in on some of the excitements of the games I missed, which I’d have to wait until May to watch. And then I went back to school, picked up the threads of the semester, and kept going with the usual–teaching, writing, and studying for Jeopardy!. Nothing more would happen, I was pretty sure, until the beginning of the next season, at least.
*Louisa May Alcott.