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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!


Unknown said...

John I am very proud of you. Thanks for the great blog. :)

Pat M - Tucson said...

My husband and I both read your entire blog posting about the tournament. Nice to hear about the background stuff that go on. Always wondered about practicing with the buzzer. Looking forward to the show tomorrow.

loonyhiker said...

I am so proud of you! We were on vacation at Disney World and I insisted that we leave the park early so we could come back to the hotel to watch you on Thursday! My husband was very impressed with you too! It was so exciting to see my "friend" win!! Good luck this week! We will be watching!

cwheatley said...

I enjoyed reading your blog. I've always wondered about the "behind the scenes" action. Congrats, and I look forward to watching the next round!

Mister Teacher said...

Thanks, you guys! Looking forward to the finals!

Chip said...

I told my husband that you would win. Great job!! Your blog is great. Cannot wait to read your books. I always enjoyed school and had some teachers that I loved. I think you would be one of them. You have a wacky sense of humor. I believe Alex admired you too. Now, will you be on any of the other play-off shows since you won the teacher tournament? You should. But they haven't asked me. Congrats!!\

jwg said...

Tell us about the rest before you go off to celebrate! And congratulations.

Mister Teacher said...

JWG, I'll put another post up as soon as I can.

Chip, yes, I get to play in the next Tournament of Champions. But that won't be for another year and a half or so...