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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Teacher of the Year

This summer, I'm going to rerun the Learn Me Good comic strips that my brother and I did a few years ago.  Here's the first one we started with!


Monday, June 02, 2014

Never never

"Oh darn, only one more week of school left before summer break!"


said no teacher ever...

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Learn Me Good 101

Hey, did you know there's actually a class on Learn Me Good?  An actual COLLEGE class!  OK, so the entire class is not about Learn Me Good, but I learned recently that an education class in North Carolina (no, not at Duke) has been using my book as part of the curriculum!  Pretty cool, right?  Even cooler, the professor of the class, Holly Pinter, wrote a guest blog post for me, detailing exactly what she and her students do with the story!

Without any further ado, I'll pass it over to Ms. Pinter.

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In my position at Western Carolina University, I have the opportunity to teach a freshman seminar entitled “Teachers, School, and Society,” which explores education and its purpose from many angles. In this class, I expect the students to develop a strong sense of whether or not teaching is the right career for them. It is a delicate balance and an important job—we need teachers and we need a sustainable program. On one hand, I need to attract as many people into the major as possible; on the other hand, teaching isn’t for everyone and we want GOOD--no GREAT--teachers in our nation’s classrooms. We want the kind of teachers who are passionate about what they do and who have the staying power to invest in the field of education and make a difference in our schools. To that end, it is my job to outline not only the good, but also the bad, and the not-so-fun aspects of choosing the teaching profession. To meet these diverse goals, I structure my course to look at policy issues, trends and research in education, statistics, teaching strategies, and the day to day life of an educator.

In my class I expect students to take on the role of both student/participant and to assume what I refer to as “teacher brain.” Essentially, as we explore ideas, we do so from the perspective of learning the instructional practices aimed at teaching for understanding. One of my favorite activities from this course is a literature circle. Literature circles are a great choice for an education course because they can be broadly used. Literature circles cross disciplinary lines as well as grade levels. A literature circle could work in a high school history class, but also fit the needs of a fifth grade science class. We first do a mini lesson on what literature circles are; we explore how to structure literature circles from a teacher’s perspective-- emphasizing the importance of student choice, structured facilitation of literature circle meetings, and how to assess student understanding.

I then give students a list of about twenty purposefully chosen books including professional books and memoirs. We do “book talks” so that students hear a bit about the content of each choice, then they rank their top three choices of books. I use Amazon as my choice helper in this task by choosing a couple books I know, and then let Amazon recommendations do the rest. This past semester the choices included a wide range of books including Teaching With Love and Logic by Jim Fay and David Funk for students who are really interested in learning teaching strategies; The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch for students interested in policy issues in education; Holler if you Hear Me by Gregory Michie for students interested in teaching in urban environments; and of course Learn Me Good, a great choice for students who aren’t leaning in a specific direction, but want something real, fun, informative, and down to earth.

My most recent class had a large percentage of males, which was surprising in a predominately female-dominated major. The book Learn Me Good, attracted the attention of many of the males in the class who formed a tight knit group for our literature circle experience. The first task of the group is to decide how to divvy up the responsibilities and reading load. Each group would meet three times during the month, and each group was individually responsible for deciding how much to read, what homework they would complete (options are described below), and who would facilitate each meeting. From a teaching perspective, this structure is a dream--the work is completely frontloaded so that all the potential choices help to achieve the goals I want, but the work is totally in the hands of the students. The requirements and homework choices for students are the following:
Literature Circle Assignment Options and Descriptions
FOR ALL MEETINGS FOR ALL PARTICIPANTS:
>6 sticky notes for each section of reading including a variety of text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections. These sticky notes are to be placed on the page to which you are making a connection. List the page number, what kind of connection you are making, and a brief description of the connection.
               -text to text: Making a connection between what you are reading in the book and something else you have read.
               -text to self: Connecting your reading your own personal beliefs and experiences
               -text to world: Connect your reading to something in the outside world (current events, movies, etc.)

For EACH Literature circle session, participants must agree on and complete ONE of the following options:

Journal: Write a reflective journal about the assigned reading giving thoughts/opinions or questions regarding what was read.

Picture, Song, or Poem: choose a specific and relevant scene from this reading assignment and draw a picture, write song lyrics, or write a poem to match the scene. You must write a brief caption for your picture, song, or poem explaining the scene and its importance to the reader and/or the reading assignment.

Character in a Bag: select a key character or theme/idea from your book and collect artifacts that match your selection. Write a brief description of why you chose each artifact.

CD Cover: Design the front and the back cover for a CD to capture the theme or spirit of your book. Be sure the name of the book, plus the title of the hit single, appears on the front cover along with an appealing sketch or design. On the back, list the other songs from the CD, making sure they relate to the book and to the characters’ experiences.

(These assignments adapted from Daniels & Steineke, 2004; and Bell, B.H. EDRD 631 at Western Carolina University)

Here are two sample homework assignments from this group. The first, a CD cover, has song titles matching the themes in the book. Students were expected to describe in detail the process for choosing their titles and to make explicit connections to the text along the way. The second sample is from the assignment choice “character in a bag.”

The group of students working on Learn Me Good always seemed to have lively conversation. As I walked around listening to conversations and looking over homework assignments, I noted a lot of laughter, creativity, and thoughtfulness in much of the work and conversation. I can only assume that much of the humor and creativity stems from the content of the book—these students were hooked. The truly rewarding part was to hear the students branch out beyond the content of the book into their future classrooms. I would consistently hear, “what do you think about how he dealt with that?” or “how will you handle that kind of behavior in your class?”

This experience completely met all of my instructional goals: students were engaged, thinking deeply about their future teaching, and learning about an instructional tool to engage their own students down the road. Having books like Learn Me Good to give the down and dirty, ups and downs, and all of the fun of classroom teaching make my job of attracting quality future teachers easier. I refuse to sugarcoat what these pre-service teachers are getting into. Teaching, while a noble profession, is far from easy. Learn Me Good offers students a dose of reality along with some laughter. And most good teachers know—to do this job well, you have to have a sense of humor!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Year in Review

Happy New Year's Eve, everyone!  As has become tradition (I know, because I almost didn't do it this year, but my wife insisted) -- I've written up a somewhat tongue-in-cheek review of the year we complete tonight.

Enjoy, and everyone please stay safe tonight!



January

We rang in the new year with a barn-burning games night.  Many jokes were told, many drinks were quaffed, many words were slurred.  Baby New Year, AKA Hurricane Andrew, made sure we were up bright and early to enjoy New Year’s Day.

Midway through the month, Andrew enjoyed his first snow day with Mommy.  Of course, this was a Texas snow day, so it was really just a sheet of ice for Andrew to sit on.  DISD did not cancel school.

Determined to stick to this year’s resolution, I went to the gym the first 30 days of January, exercised my tail off, and lost 120 pounds.  On January 31st, I put it all back on – plus 25 lbs – in a Crisco 
eating contest.

February

On the 21st, I turned the big 4-0.  This did not feel much different from the big 3-9 or even the big 3-5, but at least my voice didn’t wildly modulate like it did on the big 1-6.

This seemed to be the month for new teeth, as Drew’s started coming in left and right (well, up and down).  On the first of February, he had 2 teeth.  By the 28th, he had at least 76.

I decided to dive into the business of crowdfunding a movie.  I’m pleased to say I raised a whopping $3.22 and am only $5,999,996.78 away from making Zero Shark Thirty a reality for the Syfy channel.

March

For the first time ever, I heard back from the good folks at Jeopardy.  They emailed to say I had passed the online test, and they wanted to meet me for an in-person audition.  Over Spring Break, in San Antonio, I sat with about 20 other people and tried to impress.  I knew I didn’t stand out as much as the guy in the Strawberry Shortcake outfit, but I left feeling very good about my chances.

One set of college basketball tournament semi-final games was held in Arlington, so Dad and I went.  Our seats were about half a mile from the court, but I’m sure the players could still hear us cheering and yelling, “Go, Duke!”  On a side note, Duke was not one of the teams playing in Arlington.

The Catholic Church underwent the process of choosing a new Pope, and March Massness officially began.  I thought my overall pick of Urban IX was solid going into the Sweet Sistene, but he faltered in the Evangelical Eight, and after the Faithful Four, Francis had it pretty well in the bag.

April

Wanting to take Drew for walks around the neighborhood, but not liking toy wagons or strollers, Tamara got him a miniature car with a pull-handle.  Our son took to it immediately, and thus began the twice-daily car walks.  And thus began the major tantrums on days without at least two car walks.

A Canadian group called Podium Publishing put out an audio book edition of Learn Me Good, and my footprint in the entertainment world grew just a smidge.  For every copy sold, I get a nickel and a coupon for 3 cents off Labatt Blue.

Just for fun, I decided to claim 2,542 dependents on my tax return this month.  About a week after April 15, two unsmiling gents in dark suits and darker glasses showed up at my front door, rapped me on the forehead, and said, “Don’t do that again!”

May

On the 7th of the month, our little boy turned 1 year old.  He really started walking independently about 2 weeks earlier, so I put together a video montage called One Walking Moment, showing Drew’s progression from infant to toddler, all set to the yearly highlight reel song from the NCAA tournament.  So far, Luther Vandross has not sued.

Tamara and Drew began taking a sign language class, and I learned a few signs second-hand.  It’s amazing how the signs for milk, doggie, and diaper change are exactly the same.

I heard that a lot of money could be made selling cookies door to door, so I grabbed a clipboard and a rolly cart and walked up and down my street.  I don’t know if my neighbors were more disturbed by my lack of cookies or by the inadequate fit of my lime green toga, but the police had me speak with some very friendly doctors before releasing me.

June

In the first week of June, the school year ended, and so did my tenure with the Dallas Independent School District.  No more pencils, no more books, no more complete idiocy from incompetent leadership!

This was the month that Drew’s mealtime habits made the transition into extreme sport.  Other parents might look at his actions and wonder if something was wrong with the child, but I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt and say he’s testing his throwing range and accuracy as well as experimenting to see what other parts of his head will take food into the digestive system.

Just to cross it off my bucket list, but against Tamara’s advice, I gave time travel a whirl.  I’m sorry to admit I may be inadvertently responsible for “What Does the Fox Say?”  On the other hand, Whipped Cream flavored vodka!  So you’re welcome, universe!

July

On July 2nd, Tamara and I celebrated our 3rd wedding anniversary.  We left Andrew in the care of his godfather, and we spent the evening in lovely Tyler, Texas.  Come to find out, someone was in a pranking mood on the anniversary gift page of Wikipedia, so Tamara wound up getting a lovely pleather jacket.

Late in the month, we hit the road with my side of the family for a week’s stay in Destin, Florida.  We had good weather, great waves, and mild sunburns by the end of the week.  Drew learned a very important life lesson – never eat yellow sand.

Fueled by a long-repressed passion for sculpting, I finally gave in to my creative side and began sculpting Wax What-Ifs ™.  Tiny but detailed blobs of paraffin depict Michelle Pfeiffer as a harried bus driver, Michael Jackson as a Wal-Mart greeter, and Snooki as a tolerable human being.

August

The new school year began, and I found myself in a new district, at a new school, with new colleagues and new students.  On the downside, it’s a 45-60 minute commute to work.  On the upside, the district’s theme is superheroes, and I was asked to dress as Batman for the convocation.  Win.

One week before school began, I received a call from Jeopardy inviting me to participate in the Teachers Tournament.  My new students seemed very impressed when I told them, but also confused by my teaching style of explaining everything in the form of a question.

After seeing Miley Cyrus do her thing on the Video Music Awards, I decided to try my hand (and my butt) at twerking.  I woke up 26 hours later in the Emergency Room with 3 bruised ribs, a shattered kneecap, and a sprained taint.

September

Tamara became a consultant with an online jewelry company called Chloe and Isabel.  She enjoys it quite a bit, and from all accounts, Chloe is an absolute sweetheart, though Isabel can be quite the hard-drinking, rageaholic biz-nitch.

Not even a year and a half old yet, Andrew began the road towards his PhD, attending Mother’s Day Out preschool one day a week.  He looked so very proud walking around the house with his new backpack and lunchbox.  The first day brought lots of tears, none of them from Andrew.

Watching some old reruns of The Six Million Dollar Man inspired me to make some cybernetic/bionic upgrades to my own body.  So far, all I’ve done is strapped a tiny flashlight to my forehead, but I’ll go ahead and unveil my new moniker – The Buck Fifty Man.



October

2013 was my year to choose Halloween costumes, so Drew was Yoda, and I carried him around on my shoulders as Luke Skywalker.  Since Mommy knows nothing about Star Wars – or how to take turns – Drew also got a Mad Hatter costume to go with her Alice in Wonderland.  Next year, we’ll just combine the two, and he can be the Jedi Master Hatter.

Right before Halloween, I flew out to Hollywood to be on Jeopardy.  Incredibly, Weird Al Yankovic – Mr. “I Lost on Jeopardy” himself – was on my flight, and that proved to be a good omen.  The next three weeks were tough, as my students tried their hardest to learn whether I had won or not while trying their best not to learn any math I taught them.

Christmas lights and decorations seemed to go up even earlier than ever this year in our area.  Not to be outdone, we flooded our front yard with Valentine’s Day signs and memorabilia.  In addition, I wrote several articles for the local papers decrying the War on St. Patrick’s Day.

November

My Jeopardy tournament episodes finally aired, and I no longer had to keep the results secret.  I won, I got $100,000, and Alex Trebek is deathly afraid of cinnamon.  Nearly all of the prize money went towards paying off my bookie for some ill-advised but costly youth badminton wagers.
 
We spent Thanksgiving down south with Tamara’s parents, and Andrew once again entertained us all by acting like a turkey.  Before we came home, we had our family pictures taken down by the river.  It seemed to be a popular day for shooting – not just pictures – because we heard lots of nearby rifle fire the whole time.

At the request of some neighbors, we watched over their pet pig and pet turtle.  Just for fun from a genetics point of view, I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if we crossed the pig and the turtle.  The result:  dead pig and turtle.

December

Tamara flew to New York for a jewelry party over the first weekend in December, and that weekend we had a major ice storm here in the Dallas area.  Drew and I stayed warm at my parents’ house while schools were closed, but Tamara had to fight to get home as flights were canceled.  She finally hitched a cross-country ride with a van full of wandering bobsled/piccolo/guacamole enthusiasts.

To get him in the holiday spirit, Tamara took Drew to see multiple Santas over the weeks leading up to Christmas.  Drew’s reaction varied from uninterested to pissed off.  On Christmas Day itself, Drew seemed much more interested in Daddy’s iPhone than in his own brand new presents.

To close out the year, I splurged with a bit of my newfound Jeopardy money and bought myself a new car.  I was looking for either a time-traveling Delorean or a flying George Jetson-like space car, but I wound up settling for a new Toyota Corolla.  I’m confident that with a few minor upgrades, I’ll have it flying and time jumping within a few weeks.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Cards, anyone?

The short and funny story is...

A couple of my girls asked me yesterday if I would teach them how to play poker.


The story with a little bit of context is...

Because it was so cold outside, we had inside recess, and it was my day to host it in my room.  So I had about 75 kids crammed into my classroom, all of them playing with the available materials -- dominoes, flash cards, bingo games, puzzles, and of course, playing cards.

As I was walking around, I noticed two girls playing go fish, and I saw that one of the girls had an Ace, a King, a Queen, and a Jack.  I commented that she had a really good poker hand, and both girls looked at me quizically.  I then saw the other girl had three 4s and two 3s, so I told her that she had one of the highest poker hands there was!

A few minutes later (enough time for me to have forgotten our conversation), those two girls came up and asked me to teach them how to play poker. 

I declined, saying their parents might not be too happy if the math teacher was showing them how to gamble...

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What is... Victory?

The shows have aired, I don't have to keep it a secret anymore -- I WON JEOPARDY!!!  More specifically, I won this year's Jeopardy Teachers Tournament!

 Remember that time, with the wife beater?

My earlier post was all about the quarter-final game, which was on the first day of taping.  My last three games, consisting of the semi-final game and the two-part finals, occurred on the second day of taping.

After I won the first game, I felt like all or most of the pressure was off.  Sure, I still wanted to win the whole tournament, but I hadn't fallen flat on my face in the first game, I had won convincingly, and nobody would ever be able to take that away from me.  I would forever be able to say I had won a game of Jeopardy.  Anything else was gravy.

My body didn't quite agree with my mind.  After miraculously sleeping like a baby the night before (when I didn't think I'd be able to sleep at all), I had a very rough night before that second day of taping.  I didn't sleep well, I tossed and turned, I woke up several times, and I finally just got up about an hour before I had set the alarm.

I watched a little tv, played a few quiz games on my phone, then went down to breakfast.  Rico, who had lost his quarter-final game, showed up and joined me.  I was sad to hear that he and the others who did not make the semi-finals would not be allowed to ride the Jeopardy bus with us to the studio.  Luckily, someone had rented a car and was set to follow the bus to the studio.

Only ten of us got on the bus that morning.  The nine of us who had advanced to the semi-finals, and Michael, who was designated the alternate, should anything happen to one of us.  Michael had the highest score of the six who did not advance, so he had the "honor" of riding the bus with us (really, it was OUR honor, because Michael has a wickedly awesome sense of humor).  We joked about not accepting any food from Michael and never descending stairs in front of him.

We arrived at the studio a bit later than the day before -- there was no need for filling in paperwork and shooting promotional material.  Like the day before, we went through make-up and rehearsals on the buzzer.  Unlike the day before, we got to experience something that most Jeopardy contestants probably never do (and probably never want to).

I was at the second podium, running through the mock rehearsal game.  The clue came up, something about the longest river in the United States, and I buzzed in.  The red lights in front of me lit up, and I took a breath to give my answer.  My answer never came, though, because I followed protocol and waited for my name to be called.  When my name was NOT called, and the red lights had almost faded to nil, I looked over at Glenn, the "fake Alex" of the rehearsals to see why he hadn't called on me.  Alongside Glenn was the REAL Alex, wearing nothing but an undershirt.  Well, I'm sure he had pants on, but because of the host's podium, I could only see his upper torso, and it was bereft of the usual snappy suit and tie.  Instead, he sported what we in the south tend to call a "wife beater."

Apparently, he was out there asking some technical question (Can we add more clues about Canada to this match?), and he eventually walked back around behind the big board.  Life went on, but we now had that image seared into our retinas for eternity.

Back to the green room we went, and Robert the contestant coordinator called my name along with two others for the first game.  YES!  I wouldn't have to sit around waiting to play, stomach acid playing havoc!  CRAP!  I was up against two people I most definitely did NOT want to be playing!

Timothy was the oldest member of our 15-person contestant pool, and I gave him full credit for having that much more life experience and life memories to draw from.  He played in the one quarter-final game that I actually got to watch from the audience the day before, and he was most impressive in that game.

Katie was one of two people I had been scared of playing right from the get-go of rehearsals on the first day, because of her apparent ease and speed on the signaling device (Michael being the other).  I didn't get to see Katie play in her quarter-final game, and I knew she had not won it outright, but I knew I wouldn't control the board the way I did in the first game.

We went to get miked up and have our makeup touched up.  I sat down in the makeup chair and leaned a bit to far forward, almost falling out of the chair.  I immediately looked over at Michael and shouted, "Don't get any ideas!"  He just smiled an evil smile.

Finally, it was game time.  The three of us wished each other luck and took our places behind the podiums.  Timothy told me that his wife, who was attending the tapings, had said the day before that she hoped he didn't have to play against me because I was "a demon on the buzzer."  Timothy is tall, like me, and as such did not have to stand on a raised platform.  Since I couldn't threaten him with falling off his platform, I instead said, "Hey, remember when we saw Trebek out here in the tank top?  That was really disturbing, right?" -- and hoped for the best.

Stephen Canada Who??

Since I had accumulated the most dollar-points in the first round, I was at the first podium and got to select the first clue.  I went to a category called, "OH," got the first question right, and then hit the Daily Double on the second clue of the game.  It's nice to get the Daily Double, but not so nice when you hardly have any money to wager.  I wagered the maximum amount I could ($1,000), and got it correct.

The third clue in that category asked for Homer Simpsons grunt of displeasure.  Somehow Timothy beat me to the buzzer and answered, "What is d'oh?" -- speaking the word "dough" very softly.  At that moment, I wanted to shout, "D'OH!!" myself!  I pride myself on my Homer Simpson impression, and I REALLY wanted that one.  I had it all played out in my head.  I would say, "What is D'OH?" in a perfect Homer voice, Alex would say, "Wow, you do a really good Homer Simpson," and I would reply (in my perfect Homer voice), "Hehehe, thank you Mr. Sajak!"  Alas, it was not meant to be.

The first round went pretty well after that.  There was a category about nuclear physics that I did really well in, and even a poker question. I made the audience and even Alex laugh with my interview story about trying out for the Duke basketball team.  I even lead going into the break between rounds.

Then the second round started, and all three of us fell into a sink-hole.  I think there were more unanswered questions in that round than in the rest of the tournament combined.  I fell way behind Katie and Timothy with some bad guesses.  Somehow I managed to come back at the end, but my lead at the end of the round was only $300.  I had $8700, Timothy had $8400, and Katie had $4800.  I knew the situation was bad because I would need to bet almost everything I had just to cover Timothy's all-in bet.  The bad situation became even worse when the Final Jeopardy category came up -- Buildings.

Not only was that an incredibly generic category name, it was also one that didn't inspire me with any level of comfort or ease whatsoever.  I took quite a while to make my wager, even though I knew what I had to do, because the very thought of wagering so much on such a broad category filled me with dread.  In the end, I bet $8200 -- $100 more than Timothy could get if he doubled up.

I had a strong suspicion that Timothy would bet it all, because he had made a comment earlier about needing to be more aggressive in this second round since there were no more wildcards.  However, I thought Katie might bet nothing, in the hopes Timothy and I both got the question wrong.

When the Final Jeopardy clue came up, I had no idea whatsoever what the answer was.  I had already decided on The Empire State Building as a guess if I didn't know it, so that's what I wrote down, feeling like a convicted man walking to the gallows.

The music ended, and Alex went to Katie.  She had gotten the answer wrong, and - holy crap! - she had wagered it all.  I began to see a light at the end of the tunnel.  Alex went to Timothy, who had also gotten the wrong answer.  He, too, and bet it all and went to zero.  I could breathe again!

I'm sure it was a shocker for the audience to see me get it wrong and drop to only $500.  After it aired, a whole lot of people I know said they thought I had bet it all, too.  There was no way I was going to bet everything, but I do know how incredibly lucky I was to win that game.  It could have gone in so many different directions.

On a side note, Katie Moriarty and I have remained friends through FaceBook, and I just have to say that I consider it majorly awesome to have gone up against someone named Moriarty and come away victorious.  Of all the people I've ever met, that truly is one of the coolest last names -- right up there with Zamboni and Trueblood.

When this episode aired, the biggest point of outrage on the interwebs seemed to be how none of us recognized Stephen Harper, the current prime minister of Canada.  One of the clues had shown a picture of a man and said that he followed (insert two other former Canadian prime ministers here).  The fact is, we all KNOW who the current prime minister of Canada is.  We just didn't recognize a picture of him.  I do think there's a pretty big difference.  I'm sorry to say that I also would not recognize a picture of England's David Cameron, Australia's Tony Abbott, or Italy's Giorgio Napolitano.

Since there are no wildcards in the semi-finals (only the winners move on), there is no need for secrecy about winning amounts, so all semi-finalists get to sit in the audience and watch the other games.  I was shown to my seat, and I had a great view of the second and third semi-finals matchups.
A familiar face joined me after the second game.  Becky, who I had played in the first round, came away victorious in her semi and joined me in the finals.  We sat in the audience and quietly rooted for Maryanne from Canada to complete the replica rematch.  Instead, it was Mary Beth from Alaska who took the third spot, winning decisively.  (Yes, Alex would later say she only won by a dollar, but that was her wagering strategy -- she could have won by so much more.)

Just like the day before, the lunch break came after the third game of the day, so Mary Beth, Becky, and I were whisked away from the studio, out the door, down the alley, and over to the Sony commissary.  Wow!  I had to stay in the green room for lunch the day prior, but now I got to sit in the fancy chairs!  Robert the contestant coordinator was our chaperone, and he kept us away from the other teachers, at one point even barking, "Don't talk to them!" when one of us got within ten feet.  I later asked him why we couldn't talk to the people that weren't in the tourney anymore, and he smirked and said, "I'm going to give you an answer you have probably given your kids a million times -- 'Because I said so!'"

The Jeopardy Warriors Three

After a hearty lunch (Becky picked at her food, but my appetite was back on track), Robert took us back to the green room where we needed to change into another outfit.  In the green room, there are two bathrooms and a "Champion's room."  This is a small partitioned area where, during the normal run of shows, the returning champion would change.  I immediately called dibs on the Champ's room, thinking that would give me some good mojo.

Once we were all ready, they took us out to the stage and we prepared to begin the first game of the Finals.  The Finals is a two-game event where your totals from the two days are added together to determine the overall winner.  This was an important game, though there's always the chance to come back from a deficit.

The first game of the Finals was just so-so for me.  I didn't play horribly, but I certainly didn't play well.  I started off pretty strongly in the first round, but I took some horrible guesses in a category about car tag lines, and that hurt me pretty badly.  Mary Beth was just as good on the signaling device as I was, and she answered a whole lot of clues that I would have known if I could have buzzed in on time.  I only managed to buzz in first on one of the clues in a category all about dinosaur names!

The second round was even worse as I seemed to hit a wall about midway through and just watched as Mary Beth increased her lead.  At the end of Double Jeopardy, MB had a commanding lead of $16,000 to my $8,600, with Becky at $5,600.

The Final Jeopardy category came up U.S. Presidents.  I was VERY happy to see that as I had studied the crap out of Presidents.  At the same time, I didn't want to go to zero if I got it wrong, so I wagered all but $2,000.

The clue came up, somewhat wordy but basically asking for the second man to inherit the presidency without ever having been elected.  I started to get excited, because I knew all about the 20-year curse, sometimes also called Tecumseh's Curse.

When I really started studying before my taping, I had learned of the 20-year "curse" on the office of the U.S. Presidency, which started with William Henry Harrison.  In a nutshell, starting with 1840, every president elected on the 20-year multiple died in office.  These men did not necessarily die IN that year, but if they were elected in that year, they died sometime while in office.

William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, died of pneumonia 30 days after taking office.  John Tyler took over.

Abraham Lincoln, elected in 1860, assassinated in 1865.  Andrew Johnson took over.

James Garfield, elected in 1880, assassinated in 1881.  Chester A. Arthur took over.

William McKinley, elected in 1900, assassinated in 1901.  Teddy Roosevelt took over.

Warren Harding, elected in 1920, died of an aneurism in 1923.  Calvin Coolidge took over.

Franklin D Roosevelt, elected in 1940 (as well as 3 other times), died of natural causes in 1945.  Harry Truman took over.

John F Kennedy, elected in 1960, assassinated in 1963.  Lyndon B. Johnson took over.

Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, shot in 1981, but survived.  Reagan thus "broke the curse."

Thus endeth the history lesson.

So anyway, my mind flew to Andrew Johnson, and I started to write his name down as my answer.  As I started on his last name, though, something nagged at the back of my head.  Something just didn't feel right, and that was when I remembered there was one other president who died in office.  Someone who did not fit the 20 year pattern.  A certain Mr. Zachary Taylor, who died of natural causes in 1850.  Once I remembered, I quickly crossed out "Andrew Johnso" and wrote "Fillmore."  I didn't think I'd have time to write "Millard Fillmore," and I knew they'd accept a last name only but not a first name only.  (BTW, they would NOT have accepted "Johnson" only, because there has been an Andrew AND a Lyndon.)

Before revealing the Final Jeopardy clue, Alex Trebek had pointedly made the comment, "We have two social studies teachers and a math teacher, and the clue is U.S. Presidents."  It seemed like a bit of a shot across the bow at the time, but I turned out to be the only one who got the correct answer.  Becky's thinking must have followed my own - without the last second remembering - because she wrote Andrew Johnson.  Mary Beth chose Chester A. Arthur and later said she got hung up on actual assassinations, rather than deaths of any sort.

This gave me the lead at the end of the first day, with $15,200 to Mary Beth's $11,000 and Becky's $0.

Back to the green room we went, and we changed into our final outfit of the day.  Back to the stage we went, where we prepped for the final game of the day.  Each of us was given a small note card that had our first day's totals on them.  Something to keep in mind, this went at the top of our podiums, unseen by the viewing audience.

While we were waiting to get started, Maggie the contestant coordinator came up and pointed out an elderly lady sitting in a wheel chair in front of the studio audience.  I think this lady's name was Maggie as well, and we were told that it was Maggie's birthday and asked to wave and wish her a happy birthday.  We called over to Maggie who beamed a huge smile.  Mary Beth then asked if we should sing her Happy Birthday.  Standing at a podium, getting ready to play for $100,000, and she wants to sing Happy Birthday to this lady.  How cool is that?

Our final game finally started, but with a bit of an unseen hitch.  As we were being introduced, my camera went off prematurely, and Becky's came on midway through MY introduction.  I thought it was odd, but I wasn't going to let it throw me off my game.

The round started, and we all pretty much held our own.  Scores were pretty close going into the first commercial break.  During the break, the director came over to me and acknowledged the camera error at the beginning and said they were going to fix it.  He asked me just look forward and just stare into the camera, and that they'd edit that into the opening sequence.  I must have stared at that camera awkwardly for 30 seconds before he said cut, and I know I could hear my fellow Jeopardy contestants in the audience laughing their butts off.

During the contestant interview portion, on the fourth and final day of the tournament, I FINALLY got to mention my book, Learn Me Good!  Hallelujah!  Alex responded to my plug with, "Good for you!"  I'm thinking about adding that ringing endorsement to the back cover now.

The rest of the round mostly belonged to Becky and me, with Mary Beth answering a few clues.  watching at home was kind of funny, because one clue asked about Superman's arch nemesis, and when Becky beat me to the buzzer, you can very visibly see me hit the podium in frustration.

At the end of the first round, I had a pretty good lead over Becky - $6,800 to $4,000 - with Mary Beth bringing up the rear at $1,600.  My lead didn't last for long, though.  A huge group of people had once again clustered around the judges table, and the break between rounds went on far longer than usual.

We're the four best friends that anyone could ever have...

This time, Maggie didn't tell me what they were conferring about.  I knew I hadn't had the chance to spell, or misspell, anything in the first round, so I wondered what else I had done wrong.  Finally, two people I had never seen at the taping before this moment approached and stood in front of me.  One was a small, George Costanza lookalike, who turned out to be the producer of Jeopardy.  He had some bad news for me.  Turns out my answer on the final clue of the first round - ants - was not acceptable after all, as they needed termites, or specifically WHITE ants.  He told me they were going to have to take the money away from me, and then he stood there waiting, as if I was supposed to give my approval or rebuttal.  The other person who had approached was a really good looking blonde who never said a word, and I can only assume she was the producer's bodyguard, ready to defend him in the case I leapt over the podium to attack him for daring to take my money away.

The termites clue had been worth $1,000, so I lost the $1,000 they had credited me with PLUS another $1,000 for getting the answer wrong.  Now down to $4,800, I made ready for Double Jeopardy.  Before leaving the stage, Maggie grabbed my arm and said, "Remember, when they take your money away, just go back out there and get it all back!"

The film starting rolling again, and Alex announced the ruling to everyone.  Becky got the first question of the round right and then moved to a category called "Literary Openings."  This turned out to be my category, and I ran all five clues.  I then started to run the Anatomy category, hitting a Daily Double at the $1600 clue.  What kind of glands are tear ducts?  Exocrine glands?  Never heard of them, and I lost $3000 as a result.  If I had more time, I might have thought of Endocrine glands and swapped Exo- for Endo, but it didn't happen in those few seconds.

The rest of the round went pretty much my way until the final category, all about art in the Guggenheim Museum.  I actually knew four out of the five questions, but Becky and Mary Beth were able to beat me to the buzzer, and Mary Beth got the last few high-dollar questions correct.

When the round ended, I had a big lead at $18,200, Mary Beth had $10,600, and Becky had $8,000.  As I looked at the scoreboard, I quickly doubled Mary Beth's score and added her $11,000 from the day before.  I had more than her -- I had won the tournament!

The the fear and doubt kicked in, and I spent the next 5-7 minutes with scratch paper and a marker, checking my math every which way from Sunday.  I finally convinced myself that I had indeed done the math correctly, and that a wager of $0 would ensure my victory.

At that point, I decided that, since my answer didn't matter, I was going to give a shout out to my son, Drew.  I had talked about him a lot to the other contestants, the coordinators, and even Sarah of the Clue Crew, who had recently had a baby herself.  But I hadn't had a chance to mention him during a game to the world at all.

At the end of the very first game, before Final Jeopardy, I had asked Maggie if I could write, "Hi Drew!" at the bottom of my response.  She thought hard about it, then said, "Normally, the rule is no, but you know what?  Go for it!"  Almost immediately, John the director was at our podiums saying, "OK, remember to write legibly, put your answer only, no shout outs, no smiley faces, nothing else!"

This time, I didn't ask for permission, but I figured they'd forgive me.

When Alex started to read the clue, I zoned out.  I picked up my pen and started to write, "I Love You, Drew!"  I never looked at the clue at all, and I hadn't paid attention to what Alex was saying.  I think it's driving some people crazy not to know whether I would have been able to answer that question or not, and they'll undoubtedly assume that I couldn't have, but the honest truth is that I saw Mary Beth's correct answer of "What is Pakistan?"  LONG before I ever saw the clue.  So there's just no way to say with any certainty.

Every word spelled correctly!

In any case, it didn't matter, because I had the finals locked up.  Becky had gotten the answer incorrect and went to $0 again, but by winning third place, she was guaranteed $25,000.  Mary Beth got the answer correct and had bet it all, taking her two day total up to $32,600.  Then the moment of truth.  Alex revealed my answer and chuckled at the shout out.  He never asked who Drew was, so there are probably some people out there who either think I'm gay or a huge New Orleans Saints fan (or both).  My mind still screamed that there was a 0.00001% chance I had made a bone-headed math error, but when my screen changed to $33,400, I could finally relax and celebrate.

I ran around the podium to shake Alex's hand and felt like I was floating off the stage.  I had no earthly idea what he said to me until I saw it on TV last week.

When we all stood around at center stage while the credits rolled, Mary Beth gave me a huge hug.  Then Becky gave me a huge hug.  Then Trebek and I threw our arms open and faked giving each other a huge hug.

I held up pretty well during the entire taping and even during the post-game interview with Sarah.  Once I walked off the stage, though, I couldn't help it anymore, and I started to cry, big time.  Then Maggie started to cry, then even the super sweet make up lady started to cry.

I finally got the waterworks under control, and I was lead back to the commissary, where everyone was having a big after party.  There was a cake, chocolate covered strawberries, and champagne.  Alex Trebek was not there, but then I figure he celebrates in his dressing room with cake, chocolate covered strawberries, and champagne after every game.

Lots and lots of pictures were taken, lots of hugs were given, and I finally got a chance to call my wife to tell her the good news.

Trebek's Angels?

At one point, I was over on the side talking with a few of the Clue Crew members when I heard a big shout.  I turned to see my fellow contestants filming a short good luck video for me.  In every teachers tournament, they show a video for each teacher of their kids shouting, "Good luck on the teachers tournament!"  These fine folks were now making one for me to use during the Tournament of Champions.  This is not usual or commonplace in the least.  This is something that THEY came up with and decided to do just because they are THAT.  FREAKING.  INCREDIBLE.

I know that I'm leaving out a ton of details, but this already feels like a novella, so I'll just shut up here.  I have no idea when the Tournament of Champions will be, because they are doing a special 30th anniversary tournament this year, and the next ToC won't be until sometime next season.  Until then, it's back to life as normal for me, with daydream material to last a lifetime.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A lifelong dream

Now that Thursday night has passed, and the show has aired, I can finally reveal that a lifelong dream has come true.  I WON A GAME OF JEOPARDY!!!

When I got the call back in August, the week before school started, inviting me to participate in the Teachers Tournament, I made the decision not to mention it on this blog or on the LMG Facebook page.  The reason was that the Jeopardy people had said it was allowable, but that if anyone contacted me to say they too were going to be on the show, I would have to call Jeopardy immediately and let them know, because they don't want people competing if they already know each other.  I didn't want to even take the risk of possible disqualification, so I kept it mum.

Believe me, it was not easy.

But now that the show has aired, I can talk about it a little.  The tournament is not over yet, so I can't reveal who won, who lost, or who did a very provocative dance on what appeared to be a stripper pole in the back of a bus (hint: it was NOT Alex Trebek).  But I can talk about that first game, some behind the scenes, and the reaction I got Friday at school.

Flashback to mid-August... I was in my new classroom, trying to get things organized.  Trying out different desk arrangements, deciding what should go up on the walls.  My phone buzzed, and I saw that I had a voicemail.  The area code said 310, and the readout said "Culver City."  My heart just about stopped.  That was Jeopardy.  They had finally called me up.

I called the number back with trembling hands and spoke to a very nice lady named Corina.  She told me that they had selected me for the Teachers Tournament.  I hid my slight disappointment, as I had wanted to be on the regular show, with more potential for big money if I could keep winning.  I chatted with Corina for a while and told her I would need to get back to her after I confirmed with my principal that I could indeed miss four days of school in October.

This is my first year at this school, and my first year in a new school district. I did not know my principal well at all, and she did not know me.  Had I still been at my old school, my principal most likely would have given me permission to go, but she would have thought the whole time I was going to be on Wheel of Fortune or Price is Right.  My new principal thought I was pulling a prank on her.  She thought I wanted a mental health week and was just making up a story about going on a game show.  I finally convinced her by letting her listen to Corina's voicemail on my phone.

Confirming with Corina, I was in!  And I had roughly two months to prepare!  Holy SNOT, I was so not ready!

The next two months were not sleep-filled, relaxing, comfortable months by any stretch of the imagination.  I was already inundated with requirements at my school, in addition to having a 45-60 minute one way commute.  So school ate up the 6:30-6:30 part of each day, then I had a child to attend to until around 9, and then I could choose to catch up on TV or study for Jeopardy.  Most nights, I chose wisely and filled a notebook with facts about states, presidents, world capitals, artists, etc.  Sundays were for grading and lesson plans, but Saturdays I treated Jeopardy as a second job and spent hours studying and preparing.  It broke my heart every time my son pressed his face against the glass window in the door of the room I was studying in and gave me a look that said, "Please play with me, daddy!"  Sometimes I caved; often I kept studying.  Now that it's all over, our relationship doesn't seem to be too "Cats in the Cradle"-ed.  He IS only 1, after all.

My students were super excited.  Sure, some of them really wanted to see me play on TV and do well.  Most of them were more excited for two other reasons.  Number 1, they knew THEY would be on TV as well.  A film crew from the local CBS affiliate had come out to shoot a short "Good luck" video in September, and they were psyched about seeing that on TV.  Number 2, one of my more impetuous students had insisted that if I won, he would wear a tutu to school.  This was not based on any prompting by me, he came up with this idea himself, and who was I to turn down his suggestion.

The Friday before I was scheduled to fly out to LA, my school threw a surprise pep rally for me.  The kids had made banners, my family had secretly been invited and had shown up, and each grade level gave me something to help me pack for my trip.  I got a Superman backpack to put everything in.  I got a bag of roughly 2 million peppermints with a card that said, "You are MINT to win!"  I got a Jeopardy "Thinking cap," a ginormous pair of sun glasses, a huge clicky pen, some luxury car catalogs, and some stress balls.  It was pretty awesome.

Let's skip ahead to game day itself.  We were tasked to meet in the hotel lobby at 7:30 in the morning.  I woke up and went down to the hotel restaurant around 6:45, knowing full well I would not be able to eat much.  I had a bowl of cereal and people-watched the whole time, wondering which of these other patrons was also a competitor.

At 7:30, after an elevator ride downstairs with two other teachers from the tournament, we all anxiously got on the bus with Maggie, the exuberant, mile-a-minute, AWESOME contestant coordinator.  I chatted very briefly with Cathy, a high school forensics teacher from Baltimore, before Maggie launched into her speech.

The bus ride to the studio took nearly an hour, and Maggie talked to us nearly that whole time.  She told us the rules of the tournament, she told us the rules of Jeopardy, she told us the nuances, the anecdotes, the things to watch out for.  She encouraged us to get all of the Sean Connery accented name calling of Trebek out of the way on the bus.  A teacher from SC named Michael took advantage and cracked us all up by doing the best Connery version of "Suck it, Trebek, you bashtaad!"

Once we got to the studio, another contestant coordinator named Robert immediately started asking people to confirm their name, their grade level, their hometown.  He also shared the three anecdotes Alex Trebek would be choosing from during the contestant interview portion, and he asked them to respond to him as they would respond to Trebek.  His dismissive "No, don't say that," for unworthy stories AND his raucous cackling laughter at a good story became legendary quickly.

I was immediately whisked into the makeup room where the nice young lady attempted to perform the miracle of making me look good on camera.  I could only hope for the best.

After that, I was the second person led out to the actual stage itself.  The podiums.  The monitors.  The big board.  Pretty darn awesome.  All they were doing at this time was feeding us lines to say directly into the camera.  They would later splice lines and people together to make the commercials and promos for the tournament.  Thus the very cheesy, "It's the hottest game in town!" you may have seen me say.

As I said, I was the second person to do this.  As I waited at the base of the stage, I watched a contestant from near Boston named Eli finish his lines.  He seemed very uncomfortable, and I got an idea of just how awkward this whole thing was.  If you've watched the first round, you know by now that Eli won his match quite comfortably, and he is a great guy with a great sense of humor.  No one can blame him for being uncomfortable reading lines at 8:30 in the morning in front of a group of strangers.

I got off to an awkward start myself.  The first thing the lady behind the camera said was, "Who will be number one?"  I thought they were asking for some false bravado, so I said, "I will be number one!"  Again, the lady said, "WHO will be number one?"  I tried my response with difference emphasis -- "I WILL be number one!"  Finally, she said, "No, just repeat what I'm saying.  Who will be number one?"

So much for false bravado.

After my line readings, I rejoined the group as we signed paperwork, grazed lightly on a fruit tray, and answered Robert's promptings about humorous/significant life events.  My three stories (remember, Trebek will be choosing one, so be ready to talk about it) were 1) My book, Learn Me Good 2) Trying out for the Duke basketball team 3) My Darth Vader Explains the Pythagorean Theorem video on YouTube.  I was prepared to talk about any of those, though I hoped Alex would ask me about Learn Me Good.

After a while, we all got to go out to the stage and learn how the buzzers work, how the electric pen works, how the game truly works.  One of the contestant coordinators stood in as a fake Trebek, and we played an actual game, complete with daily doubles, commercial breaks, interviews, and a Final Jeopardy.  Of course, all of this was to give us a sense of timing for the signaling device.  Whenever someone appeared to have the hang of it, Maggie would call them out and someone else would take their place at the podium (and each time, that person would get to practice signing their name with the electric pen as well).

Here is the story of the signaling device.  It is a smallish, cylindrical device with a flat, blue, bottlecap-feeling button on the end of it.  It fits comfortably in your hand, and the button does not require much pressure to depress it.  During game play, you cannot press the button before Alex finishes reading the question.  When Alex finishes reading, a technician offstage pushes a button that activates the buzzers and turns on a row of runner lights on either side of the big board (you cannot see these lights on TV at home).  Once those lights are on, the signaling devices are activated, and players can buzz in.  A player who clicks their device BEFORE the lights come on is "locked out" for 1/4 of a second.  This is why you often see players repeatedly (and desperately) clicking their buzzers.  Because if all three of them buzzed in too early, they are all locked out for that short period and trying to get the first to "rebound" back in.

I had read and been told many strategies for defeating the signaling device.  Use your pointer finger instead of your thumb.  Maintain a solid stance.  Anticipate when the last word is being read, try to read the mind of the offstage technician, and buzz in right as you think he's pushing the button.  Do not look directly at the buzzer.

I tried most of these things during rehearsals.  Most of them did not work.  Since the games, several of the other teachers have told me that they were terrified of playing against me because I was so fast on the buzzer.  I still don't get it, because I did not feel I was very good on the buzzer during rehearsals at all.  I wasn't consistent, I wasn't beating anyone with any regularity, and I wasn't confident with my strategy.  Yet as soon as I got 2 or 3 in a row correct, Maggie called me off and someone else took my place.

I went back to the green room not feeling any better about my timing than before.  And then the waiting began.

That day, they filmed all five of the quarter-final matchups -- the games you watched this past week.  In the quarter-finals, the 5 winners advance, but so do the top 4 non-winners.  This does not mean the 2nd place finisher from each game moves on.  It's the top 4 out of the ten people who did not win their match-up.  It would not be fair if someone in a later game got to watch an earlier game and therefore KNEW how much money they needed to acquire to receive a wild-card spot, so they sequester us away in the green room until it is our turn to play.   But they don't tell you WHEN you're going to play, or against WHOM.

Robert the coordinator came in and grabbed Katie, Rico, and Anne for the first matchup, and the rest of us sat around and got comfortable.  We had a selection of movies that we were told would most definitely not come up in questions during our games.  We decided upon Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Some people watched, some people crammed a bit more, some people made small talk.  Phones had to be off, so there was no communication with the outside world whatsoever.  We could occasionally hear bursts of muffled applause from the studio outside the room.

After about 50 minutes, Robert came back into the room and told three more people to get ready.  Getting ready involved a make-up touch-up and getting hooked up with a microphone.  I still had no idea when I would play, just that I would have at least another 50 minutes of knots in my stomach.

When Robert came in again, I thought it was surely my turn, but no, he called out three more names that were not mine.  By this time, we had moved from Raiders to Scott Pilgrim.

After the third game, there was an hour-long lunch break -- just to add even MORE tension to the six of us left.  They brought in pizza and a huge sandwich tray, but they may as well have brought in a single package of ritz crackers for how much got eaten.

After lunch, they let us have another round of rehearsals on the buzzer, and thank goodness for that.  I still didn't feel awesome, but I worked out a few kinks, and right as the time was ending, I felt I had my best strategy down.

We got back to the green room, and Robert finally called my name, along with two women named Maryanne and Becky.  Maryanne was the only teacher from Canada in the tournament, and in fact the first Canadian to participate in the teachers tournament.  Becky was from Georgia and full of off-color stories from the classroom that reaffirmed my thinking of why I have not yet made the jump to high school.

We made our way out onto the stage, took our places at the podiums (I was at number 3), and carefully made our neatest signature on the electronic screen.  Technicians raised the little platforms behind the other two podiums so that the height difference between the two ladies and me would not be so drastic on television.  We looked at each other and wished each other good luck, and I added a kind, "Try not to think about falling off of your platform. I'm sure it won't happen."

Maggie was right up there with us, giving us last second reminders, high fives, jokes, and funny faces.  At a cue, she left the stage, there was a moment of silence, then the theme music started up and Johnny Gilbert began his familiar opening -- "THIS is the Jeopardy Teachers Tournament!"

We had been instructed on which camera across stage to look into as we were being introduced, so I gave my best please-be-natural-looking-and-not-at-all-psychotic smile for what seemed like a month.  When all three of us had been introduced, Alex Trebek walked around from behind the big board to meet his applause.

Unlike the contestant coordinators, make-up people, microphone guy, Clue Crew, etc, contestants have NO interaction with Alex Trebek whatsoever outside of the game itself.  He's not going to be stopping by Cheers or any other bar to have a drink with the winners or losers.  So this was the very first time we had laid eyes on the man in person, and seeing the dapper old man in the expensive suit gave me pause to think, "Wow, this is really happening now."

He said some opening remarks that I didn't even remember until seeing them on TV (which included a shout out to a group of Trebek groupies in the audience), and then the game was on.  The categories were read, and when "Canadian Geography" came up - with me standing next to the one Canadian in the group - it was difficult not to groan out loud.

If you've watched the show, you know what came next.  A lot of it was a blurry memory for me.  Some things were very clearly remembered, others were a haze until I saw it on TV.  I nearly ran the board for the first half of the round.  I ran a category, which pleased me to no end, because now I can say I've joined the "Patented Duke Run" club so often held by our men's basketball teams.  I answered one question in an Elvis voice, and I got a Daily Double correct.  We went to commercial break with me leading by nearly 7,000 dollars, and I didn't even know that Alex had (jokingly?) commented that my one miss was a bad sign for me.

During the commercial break, Alex answered questions from the audience, while I got a touch-up from the make-up lady and a small bottle of water from another stage hand.  They had us each press our signaling device button to make sure they were all working -- Becky and Maryanne were no doubt wondering about that by then, but they did this check during every commercial break of every game.  Maggie came up to talk to us, but mostly spoke with Becky and Maryanne.  My guess is she was giving them new strategies to try on the signaling device, and I didn't particularly care for that, but that's her job, and she had certainly done the same for me during rehearsals and would have done the same for me if I hadn't been buzzing in much.

We came back from commercial and it was time for the interviews.  I tried to think of my responses to the three topics while at the same time trying not to blink too much or twitch my nose.  Alex threw me a curveball by not only NOT asking me about Learn Me Good (Suck it Trebek, you bashtaad!), but also by not asking me about ANY of the three topics.  Instead, he commented on how I had only missed one question so far and then asked me how long I had watched Jeopardy.  HUH??  Looking back, I wish I had had the presence of mind to respond, "Not long, Alex.  When do we spin the wheel?" Of course, my parents are extremely happy I did not say this.

Back into the first round, Maryanne caught the buzzer bug and went on a roll of her own (though I did vulture one of her Canadian Geography questions).  At the end of the first round, I had nearly double as much as Maryanne, and poor Becky was barely on the board.

Between rounds, Alex Trebek comes around behind each contestant (that sounds weird, but keep reading) and has a picture taken.  This picture is sent to each contestant, usually before their game actually airs.  When he was next to me, I could see that he was trying to stand on his tip toes to look taller.  So I shrunk down a bit to match him.  He noticed, and very sincerely said, "Oh hey, thanks!"

We have yet to receive our pictures, however some of the other teachers have seen their pictures in their local media (The major Dallas media apparently doesn't care about me, as the only story that's run is by someone I know in the online education blog that I contacted and told myself.  Thanks, Tawnell!).

Still, that didn't stop my fellow Texan contestant James from showing off his photoshopping skills and taking someone else's media picture and superimposing his own head and then another teacher's head onto the body.  I wisecracked him, as I am known to do, and so he altered my photoshop masterpiece a bit...

(Alex is typically on your right)

Going into the Double Jeopardy round, the categories all looked manageable -- there was no Canadian Lakes and Rivers, or Native Georgian Cuisine.  I think the initial shock of being on the Jeopardy stage had worn off (or they finally realized that they really were NOT in danger of falling off of the platforms), and both Becky and Maryanne get right into it.  About midway through the round, Becky hit a Daily Double and shrewdly bet it all, got it right, and doubled up to move into second place.

At the end of Double Jeopardy, Maryanne had $9,400, Becky had $10,800, and I had an insurmountable lead at $22,600.  Then the controversial part of the evening began.

The Final Jeopardy category was Symbols.  This clue came up:  One legend says Clovis, king of the Franks, adopted this symbol after flowers revealed a safe river crossing for his army.

I immediately thought of the symbol on the side of the New Orleans Saints football helmets.  Of course I knew it was the fleur de leis!  Not that it mattered, since I had bet $0 and my score wasn't changing any way, but I was happy to know that if I HAD been in a close game, I would win because I knew fleur de leis!  I quickly scrawled "is a fleur de leis" -- I had already been instructed to write "What" before the commercial break ended, because they always tell you whether it's going to be a WHAT or a WHO answer -- and by the time the camera panned over to me, I gave it a big, cheesy, Elvis-worthy smile for the home audience.

The think music ended and Alex approached Maryanne.  Her answer was revealed -- correct.  Her wager -- everything.  She doubled up to $18,800.

Alex turned to Becky.  Her answer was also correct, and she had wagered to beat Maryanne by a dollar -- $18,801.

Then the director walked onstage and called "CUT!"  I was stunned.  I knew I had won, since even with a double up, Becky couldn't catch me, but I thought they would at least show my answer and my wager.  What, were they going to put up some color pattern and the text "John won" ??

Maggie raced up to stand by my side and told me they were checking on something.  About 12 people huddled around the judges table offstage.  Maggie finally told me they were checking to see if my spelling could be accepted.  Fleur de leis is actually spelled fleur de lis.  I had no idea.  And all I could think, as they took nearly ten minutes to decide on a ruling, was that it didn't matter anyway, because I still had more money and was going to win the game.

Finally they were ready to restart, they gave Alex a cue to start on, he revealed my answer, made no mention of the spelling (I was expecting a "You spelled it wrong, but we'll count it"), and I had indeed won the game.

I got to sit in the audience and watch the fifth game of the day, and when the 9 semi-finalists were revealed, both Becky and Maryanne took their spots as wild-card winners.  Ours was the only match where all three people moved on to the next round.

Cut to this past Thursday night, when the show aired.  It was a blast to watch it with my wife and son and some friends.  My 18-month-old son shouted, "DADA!" every time I came on the screen, and only one of my friends booed when Johnny Gilbert introduced me.

For the next few hours, I was inundated with texts, phone calls, and FB messages.  I went to bed very late because I tried to respond to all of them.  I also (perhaps unwisely) took a look at some of the general Jeopardy forums to see what people had said about my game.  One of the major topics of discussion was my misspelling of the Final Jeopardy answer.

Several people said I should have lost the game (nevermind that I had a lock on the game), while many claimed I was an idiot for thinking it involved a Hawaiian flower necklace -- you know, the plural of a lei?

I think it's great to get behind a cause in life.  For some people, that cause is helping to provide food to the starving countries of the world.  For others, that cause is giving underprivileged children a decent education.  For others still, that cause is apparently posting to online forums about perceived inconsistencies and injustices on a televised game show.

Hey, whatever floats your boat.

But let me just share my own personal thought process.  Of course I know it's not "Fleur de LAYS."  If I thought that, I would have spelled it like that.  I know it's pronounced LEES or LEE, depending on the Frenchitude of the speaker, but I honestly always thought there was an E in there.  I guess I associate it with the same phonetic structure as "Leisure" or "Seige," where the "ei" makes an "eeeeee" sound.  If this had been an orally answered question in the Jeopardy round, there would have been no debate because I would have pronounced it correctly.

Anyway, enough on that topic.  I want to finish with what an impressive, incredibly fun group of people the teachers in the tournament were.  Remember I said I was disappointed when I got the call in August because I wanted to be in the regular version of the game?  Now, having been through the tournament experience and meeting the people I did, I wouldn't change it for the world.

We bonded in the green room, we bonded in the audience, we bonded in the hotel bar in the evenings over drinks (normally we call this "book study" or "safety drills.").  If you follow my page on FaceBook, you've probably seen many of them Like or comment on my posts.  I do the same on their posts.  We've truly become friends, and if any of us lived locally, we would almost certainly hang out on a weekly basis.

Or a weighkly basis, take your pick.


Oh, and I almost forgot -- the reaction at school the next day!  Most of my teaching colleagues commented on how they liked my Elvis impression and were impressed with my win.  My kids had lots of compliments, and one asked why on earth I would think they had TURKEY calling competitions (because her dad participated in the true duck calling contests).  The boy who had wanted to wear a tutu if I won did indeed wear a tutu.  I told him that he didn't have to unless I won the whole tournament, but he said since I won the game, he was going to wear the tutu.  At recess, I was swarmed by 3rd graders who wanted my autograph.

I'll say, it's been a hell of a ride.  And it continues tomorrow night as I take on Timothy and Katie in the semi-finals.  Hope you watch!

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