Being a fifth-grade television star isn't easy. Being a television star and having to multiply in your head is even tougher. And doing both, without watching yourself on a monitor, is nearly impossible.
But these are the obstacles students must overcome on "It's Elementary," the area's newest educational quiz show. Fifth-grade students from the District, Virginia and Maryland compete in tests of reading, spelling and mathematics.
The half-hour program, recorded at WJLA television studios in the District and aired on Sunday mornings, is the brainchild of Susan Altman and Susan Lechner, who produce and edit the high-school version, "It's Academic."
The host-quizmaster is former Redskins end Roy Jefferson, who is besieged by his contestants for autographs. The adult talent, however, is entirely upstaged by the young contestants.
Set-jawed and wiry, 10-year-old John glares at the shoulderblades of the girls who tower on either side of him. As the clipboard of questions moves down the line toward him, he draws in his breath, until finally it is his turn.
"Six times six, divided by three."
The answer, "Twelve," burst out of him in a whoosh of relief.
Twelve-year-old Linda is surreptitiously sucking her thumb. David, a sandy-haired boy with professorial tortoise-shell glasses, is reflectively rubbing his stomach.
When Ronald's school is mentioned, he leaps up from his front-row seat and thrusts his fists into the camera; James, with chin in hand, mumbles cheers from behind his palm. Courtney, with a spanking-new Shirley Temple permanent, disappears of periodically behind the waves of pompons.
They are imperturbably cheerful, delightfully natural and often unintentionally funny. During the "Inside-Out " spelling test, in which the center of a word is revealed first, one boy screams out, "Artichoke!"
"Artichoke?" another boy is clearly heard to say sarcastically.
"What's the matter? Haven't you ever heard of artichoke?" is the withering comeback.
Asked to name several presidents, the students come up with the expected answers - Washington, Carter, Kennedy - and the unexpected - Buchanan and Humphrey.
Under a "Concentration"-type board, the picture of an alligator is identified after only two of nine cards are removed. "I think," says one child seriously, "it's an anteater."
A pair of eyeglasses, on the other hand, must be completely uncovered before it is recognized.
One of the regular contests involves a common word that is scrambled to produce other words. From the master word "plates" may come "slate", from "listen" comes "isle" and "slit" and from "harvest" someone gets "have." In the control booth, someone murmurs "heart." "Hey, that's good!" says Lechner. "I don't think we even have that on the master list!"
"We wanted some games that the kids at home could play along with us," explains Altman, "and we've found out that they do run and get pencils and paper."
"By that time they've missed it, but . . ." laughs Lechner.
Over the past year or so, the games and rules were tested on Lechner's children and their friends. "Some of the games we thought were really snappy didn't interest them at all," she says. Her daughter, "who wouldn't watch the show to please me," nevertheless enjoys it.
Altman, Lechner and Jefferson go to area schools to demonstrate the games. The schools are chosen by area superintendents on by a first-request, first-assigned process.
"Now we're getting requests for next year and from as far away as Annapolis," says Lechner. Three teams compete at a time, one each from Virginia, Maryland and the District.
Each school fields a team of approximately 11 students. From those students are chosen the members of "the Intergalactic Spelling Patrol," who zap, whap, blam, boom, pow and socko misspellings out of the galaxy; the "mad math match" contestants; the unscramblers; "Concentration" players (who must answer assorted questions to uncover a section of the board), and "the zip squad," who are the floor leaders and cheerers.
Although the show looks smooth on tape, it has its rough moments. Ten-year-old Tony Powell, who leaves after Christmas for a four-month international tour with the musical "Raisin," knocks the microphones off the desk and aborts a taping; Jefferson refuses the correct answer for "hippopotamus" and substitutes "rhinoceros;" director Michael Albro, leap-frogging cameras with sweeping arm gestures, dashes his coffee to the ground.
Nevertheless, the stars take it all in stride. "Well, how'd you do? Was it fun?" beamed an enxious parent who had been watching from a remote studio. His son merely shrugged.
"What's the matter? Did you goof up?" the parent asked.
"Nah. No sweat," the boy replied, and headed for the lobby, nonchalantly twirling his gold star.