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First Person Singular: Wakefield High teacher and 'It's Academic' coach Scott McKeown

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Sunday, May 2, 2010

It is super-competitive. It's serious. The kids who are good at it are sharks. If we have practice in the morning at 7, they'll be here early. And if I show up at 7:05, they'll have their calculus homework out, just squeezing in a few more minutes. They don't need "It's Academic" to be competitive. They live on the pressure, with or without a quiz game.

Sometimes your straight-A students stink at this because they're so meticulous. They have to dot all the i's. They're scared to be wrong, so they're not pit bulls. Some of the strongest kids I've had are the C kids, just your old-fashioned gentleman's C's. They'll just watch the History Channel and read whatever they want to read, but they don't care at all about grades. And they don't care about being wrong every so often. They're showing off and being nerdy and loving it.

During practice, I needle them and egg them on, just like a football coach screaming at players. Our laps and push-ups are buzzers and lists -- lists of presidents, state capitals, Greek mythology, Cabinet members. But after a competition, I don't say a word. They'll tell you every single thing they did wrong. They are harder on themselves than I could ever be. I'm just there as moral support. But if they could see me during a competition, I'm in the back row, with a clicker pen, just mashing on it ridiculously when they should be buzzing in. I'm going a little nuts, because I know that they know these answers. But look, the girl who took [our] last loss the hardest is going to Yale in the fall. She is going to be just fine.

For people who think there's too much academic pressure, I say, "baloney." I think there's not enough competition. We're making kids wimps. You need to have a killer instinct. Smart instinct is good; football instinct is good. Not every day needs to be "Everybody Gets a Trophy Day." You need to know what you're good at and what you need to work on. That's what's so satisfying about "It's Academic." Kids come in here, and they know they're smart, and they want to be competitive at that. They know at 16 what a lot of kids don't know: I'm probably not going to be a movie star. I'm probably not going to be Super Bowl MVP. But by God, I'm going to be competitive at what I'm good at.

Interview by Amanda Long


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