Ms T. on winning: Success comes with trying


Terrie Trebilcock

Some of you may have heard that I recently participated in the Jeopardy Teachers Tournament. More precisely, you may have heard that I am not the champion of the Jeopardy Teachers Tournament. And the difference between these two statements, equally true, is the reason that I am writing this today.


First of all, some background: I have been watching Jeopardy for many years. My husband thinks that I’m quite good at it; my brother-in-law has been for many years offering to buy my plane ticket to Los Angeles if I will split my winnings with him. I finally, at my husband’s urging, took the online test last winter and was asked to a tryout in Boston in the spring. I was told at the time that because I am a teacher, my name would go into two pools, one for regular Jeopardy and one for the Teachers Tournament. I nodded and came home and figured, well, that’s the end of that.


But in its unique way, life intervened. My husband was called to active duty for a year. I have been “manning the fort” at home. And then in January, I got the most wonderful phone call: “Hello, my name is Laurie, and I’m with a television program called Jeopardy….” And my life changed.


Because I was in the Tournament, and not on regular Jeopardy, all of my travel expenses were paid. So, imagine, a free trip to southern California in the middle of a Pennsylvania/Maryland February! Heaven! The trip included a day off so I was able to visit the Getty Center, tour Los Angeles, and go biking from Santa Monica to Venice Beach. All in that lovely sunshine!


And then it was Taping Day! We met in the hotel lobby, sixteen nervous teachers (15 contestants and an alternate), greeted by the show’s exuberant and gracious producer, Maggie Speak. She introduced us all, herded us onto the bus, and then proceeded to both entertain and teach us about the rules and procedures of the show all the way to the studio (isn’t that what we do in our classrooms every day?). By the time we reached the studio, we were all friends and were ready to sign our paperwork, have our makeup done (!), and go to rehearsal. We practiced with the buzzers (more complicated than it seems on TV—if you buzz in before Alex Trebek finishes reading the clue, you get locked out, so there’s only a split second to call in first!). We filmed our mini-interviews for our Farmers Insurance classroom grants, then answered questions and made “teacher faces” for the camera.


And then it was time to play! Those teachers who were not playing the game had to wait in the green room (which was actually white) and watch movies so that we could not see or hear what was going on. I imagine this was to prevent our strategizing for bets or for figuring out what kinds of questions to expect. It seemed to take forever—or at least the length of “The Princess Bride” and “Iron Man”. Three groups of three teachers were called, and still I waited. And then it was my turn! I walked out onto the stage with my new friends, Peter and Tenaya, and the producers clipped on our mikes and checked our platforms (behind the podiums, there are boxes that move up and down so that contestants all look the same height).


And away we went! I had trouble buzzing in at first (maybe I should have played more video games?), but at the commercial break, while Alex was entertaining audience questions, the producers came over to practice and give buzzing tips. So kind. And back we went to playing. It is all a blur now, even though I’ve since been able to watch the show, and I still wonder, should I have bet differently? Should I have tried that question that no one else knew? But the fact is, I did my very best. And I was so excited and pleased for Peter, who got some really tough questions correct and deserved to win.


After playing, I got to sit in the audience to watch the final show being taped. My son Aubrey drove up from Arizona to watch the taping, but I wasn’t allowed to talk to him until the whole business was over, but it was nice to know he was there. The adrenaline was still really pumping, and it was fun to finally see from the audience’s viewpoint how it all worked. The sound, lighting, technical crews all worked in a certain type of ballet in which they did their work without tripping over each other. The writers and researchers were occasionally called in to rule on an answer. Alex answered more questions from the audience. Everyone was so professional and friendly. And imagine—the teachers were called “The Talent”! After the taping was finished, Aubrey and I got to ride on the back of a studio golf cart to the parking lot, just as the sun was starting to set, and the soundstages and other buildings on the Sony Pictures Studios (formerly MGM) were lit with the golden glow of the afternoon.


I did not make it to the semifinal round, but I was chosen as the alternate, to fill in if a contestant was not able to compete. This meant that I got another free trip, this time to Washington, DC! The producers were so excited to announce that they were flying us all there…but of course, my airport IS the DC airport. So they provided a car and driver for door-to-door limousine service! That was exciting!


Highlights of my Washington, DC, stay: lunching with one of my former students who now works at the National Gallery of Art; spending a full day at the Smithsonian’s underground museums with my son Joe and his girlfriend Sarah; taking part in a private tour of the White House with the Semifinalists and Alex Trebek and his son. What a privilege! I wish we could have stayed longer to look at all the little details.


Taping Day in DC took place at Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall, a historic building, and this time we rolled right into our routine of makeup, rehearsal, and so on. But this time, as my “efforts” to share my laryngitis with the contestants did not work, I only got to watch all of the episodes being filmed. There were definitely nerves and excitement among them, but they were all fantastic, and I was so proud of them. I was so very grateful to have been included in this big day. We exchanged contact information and promised to keep in touch, and so far, we have. We have also defended each other against Internet trolls (!) and found that we have a number of “six degrees” connections—one of the contestants is from my home town, for example.


And then it was back to school, back to normal. My students have been so stoked for the entire experience. They made me flashcards of questions that they think I don’t know. Harry Potter and Kardashian questions, hip hop lyrics and singers, sports facts all were included. It was fun to have a cheering section, and they, I think, felt like a part of the ride. They were eager to hear stories about my trips, and tried to pry the results from me, even though I was contractually prevented from sharing.


And finally, we just had Tournament Week on television. Our quarterfinal episodes have aired. Oh, how frantic my kids were, bursting with questions and attempts to persuade me to spill the beans. Thursday, my air day, was almost impossible in class. I was nervous, the kids were curious (combined with the fact that my AP European History class had its exam the next day), and the day dragged on and on…. And finally, it was show time! I watched and celebrated at home with a wonderful group of friends. I was so full of excitement to watch and gratitude for my friends and family and respect for my opponents!


And finally, I went back to school on Friday, wondering how everyone would react to my coming in second place. I knew how all the wild card placement and so on would go, but I couldn’t tell, yet. How amazing, though—I was greeted with high fives and hugs and cheers! My students were over the moon! We were all excited and pumped! And then, someone had to say it, with nothing but compassion and kindness: “Ms. T, we are so sorry that you lost.”


Well. It just took my breath away for a minute. The student—and there were several of them over the course of the day—meant absolutely no harm, and was trying to commiserate. But I thought it was an important teachable moment, and here is my attempt to help them to redefine “winning” and “success” and “losing.”


There are many different ways to be a winner. The number of people who win the Heisman Trophy or an Academy Award or the Presidential race is minuscule! Hardly anyone wins a fully paid sports scholarship or the lottery or one of those iPads that the Internet keeps promising. But I believe that we can all be winners. We need to adjust our mindset on winning.


I think, based on my story that I did win at Jeopardy. I got to be one of only fifteen people per year who compete in this tournament. I also won a grant for my classroom, a cash prize, two free trips, two opportunities to hang out with my sons, a limo ride, a White House visit, a peek into how a television show is made, a chance to play a great game, and, most precious of all, fifteen new friends. This experience also gave me an absolutely thrilling way to divert my worries about my husband’s military situation. So I did not win the grand prize, but I won an awful lot, and I am particularly grateful.


I think that we all have many opportunities to win every day. Athletes can win even when they lose their games or matches. They might achieve a personal record on the track, or carry off a trick play, or beat the tag. Musicians might finally master that weird chord progression. Students might master their thesis statement or figure out that math problem or finally get their homework in on time. I might get my entire to-do list done for the weekend. These are the kinds of victories that we can all have, all the time. They are important. They are not insignificant.


How sad it would be if fear of losing kept us from trying anything new! A few years ago, I learned to snorkel for the first time. I am a slow swimmer, and at my advanced age, I am not going to win a bathing suit award, but what wonders I was able to see under the water! I could breathe and paddle along and discover turtles and squid and parrotfish. And if I had refused to try, I’d be less likely to enjoy some of my favorite beaches. Next, I’d like to try surfing—I’m sure it won’t be pretty, but I want to give it a try.


We also all develop at different rates. As many of you know, teaching is my second career. I became a teacher after working as an intelligence analyst for the CIA and after becoming a mom. I’m not sure that I’d have been very successful at teaching if I didn’t already have analytical and parenting experience.


The other thing is, even if you feel like you aren’t conquering your current situation, the thing that you’ll succeed at may not even exist yet! When I was your age, the personal computer hadn’t yet been developed, and think of how that has changed our world and our jobs. Similarly, the world will continue to change, and you will have the opportunity to master that which we do not yet know!


I will never win a Heisman Trophy or an Academy Award or the Presidency. That does not make me or the millions of people who also do not, losers. We lose only when we stop trying.


I also think that it is important to consider a couple of other things about my experience that apply to students. I took a chance when I took the online test. I took a chance when I flew to Boston for the tryout, and again when I competed. If we never take chances, sure, we will not lose or fail, but we do miss out on potentially exhilarating experiences.


It is also key to break your usual boundaries once in a while. For example, I am not comfortable in front of a camera. I don’t like doing interviews or small talk. But I had to do these very things in order to compete in the tournament. And going outside the box did not harm me! In fact, it brought me new rewards. And I actually took some decent photos.


In conclusion, remember that winning comes in all sorts of flavors and to seize the opportunity to win at all kinds of things every day!