Pericles, Sophocles, PeloponnesianWar, X , y , H50, E , du, dx e dx, Integral, secant, arc cosine, 3.14159, Line, angle, segment, ray, Whitman! Whitman, all the way!
Q: Who can beat a television quiz team with a cheer like Walt Whitman High School's?
A: Nobody--not this year.
Glaring lights, whirling cheerleaders, swinging cameras, foot-stomping fans yelling, "Jeff, John, Joel!"--none of it penetrated the concentration of three Walt Whitman students Saturday as they defeated Catonsville High School of Baltimore in, as host Mac McGarry put it,"Super Bowl EEEleven offff--'IT'S ACADEMIC!' "
Earlier in the day, the Bethesda high school easily won the Washington area finals, finishing off two teams that had survived a field of 81 metropolitan area schools. Whitman scored 490, Sidwell Friends School of Northwest Washington came in second at 350 and Greenbelt's Eleanor Roosevelt, in its first time in the regional finals, scored 300.
There were no frothy debates in the studio of WRC-TV (Channel 4). Students responded quickly to the quizmaster's questions, seizing every inflection in his voice that might tip off the question before it was fully uttered. They snapped back with bits of history from across the centuries and solutions to formulas flashed on monitor screens, answering just as the opponents went for the button.
Started 21 years ago, "It's Academic" has become as revered an institution in the schools as it has on the air, and in the process has created some institutions of its own.
Like Floor Manager Maurice (Moe) Javins: Take after take, he jumps and gyrates just seconds ahead of the sweeping camera lens, revving up onlookers in the crowded bleachers into an electric frenzy. "I'll tell you the trick," he says with Super Bowl excitement. "You gotta keep 'em pumped up. Somebody's going to win, somebody's going to lose, but all in all it'll be the most fun they've ever had."
Host McGarry: A veteran announcer from the days of "primitive TV," he started with the show when it was an experiment and has been there ever since. "Look at this," he said, sweeping an arm over the cheering throng. "The enthusiasm is always there!"
Executive Producer Sophie Altman: Scribbling away in a dark corner in the studio, she double-checks every score, every game. A graduate of Wellesley College and Yale Law School, she quit lawyering to spend more time with her children. She created "It's Academic" as a one-season experiment in 1961. Now she channels her scrutiny into the details of the program. "I remember we spent three weeks (composing) one question," she said. "We couldn't pinpoint the answer. We ended up throwing it away."
Assistant Producer Joel Kemelhor: Peering over the operation through bottle-bottom horn-rims, directing entrances and exits, he is the diplomat who soothes frustrated parents and teachers through interminable studio preparations. Kemelhor insists Altman rescued him from oblivion when she hired him, an English graduate, to write quiz questions. A member of Whitman's 1969 "It's Academic" squad, Kemelhor said the show has spawned a new and fiery order of scholastic competition that has taken on the vestiges of a high school sport.
"Whitman has almost a farm apparatus," he said. "They put you to work in your sophomore and junior years, writing questions, keeping scores, scrimmaging. Then, when you're a senior, you're ready for the team."
Team members spend hours practicing: Whitman students said they practice three times a week. At Whitman, teachers and students drop by the room where the team is practicing after school, and attempt to stump team members with questions on math, science, literature and the arts.
"They get a letter," said Judy Heyman, Whitman's faculty coach. "A varsity letter for being smart."
Both Whitman and Catonsville, as winners of their regional competitions, get a total of $2,350 in scholarship money from Giant Foods Inc. The schools decide how to use the money. Teams receive no additional prize money for competing in the Super Bowl, but take back a large or a small silver trophy. Giant also pays for production of the show at both WRC and WBAL-TV in Baltimore, Altman said, and gives 81 Washington area teams and 72 Baltimore area teams prizes ranging from $150 to $1,000 a show. The shows, which air weekly, are produced separately at both television studios.
The real competition is not for prizes but for prestige: Public and private, large and small, the high schools fight for a ranking. Whitman's recent victory was particularly sweet: It put the school one up over arch-rival Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, which won the Super Bowl in 1977 and 1979. Whitman won in 1972 and 1975, as well as this year, giving it the record for Super Bowl victories.
"We do not have a reservoir of talent like Whitman," said Nick Grabner, Catonsville's coach, just before the start of the inter-city match. "We try to sharpen them up a bit, but although we practice, it's what the kids bring themselves into the show" that determines who wins. "We do have our little group of bright kids, though."
In the first category, the Baltimore champs jumped to a 40-point lead, unscrambling words and recalling historic quotations. They held the lead through the second round, and although Whitman moved into first place during the third, it slipped back when Jeff Yablonski, John Prince and Joel Goldberg couldn't recall the name of Anna Sewell, the author of "Black Beauty." Tied, 180 up. By the end of the fourth, it was 300 even.
And then it happened. During a question in the fifth round, Catonsville Captain Mark Hinckley jumped out with "carpetbaggers" instead of "scalawags," before the quizmaster could finish asking what derisive term, with three As, was applied to Southerners who cooperated with Yankee opportunists after the Civil War. His face crumpled instantly with the realization of the slip, but it was too late. The team missed an opportunity for 20 points, was penalized 20 points and lost a 25-point bonus given for a string of correct responses. Hinckley's confidence, and that of his teammates, David Stein and Scott Luco, took a nosedive. Catonsville never recovered. The game ended with Whitman 785, Catonsville 500.
"I'm going to remember it for my whole life," Prince, Whitman's team captain, said afterward. "It's the one thing in high school I've done for the school."
As the audience rushed on with their condolences and congratulations, Altman smiled from her table in the corner. It was the end of the show's 21st season. This summer Altman, her daughter Susan, Kemelhor and researcher Susan Lechner will research, edit and compose 5,000 more questions for next year.
It's a format Altman lives by. At the show's 20-year reunion on Capitol Hill last year, she took a survey to see what happens to students of "It's Academic." In recalling the event, she asks a reporter: "What is the most popular profession that our 'It's Academic' graduates have taken up?"
Twenty points--for the easiest question of the day.
The "It's Academic" Washington area finals will be aired on WRC-TV, Channel 4 Sunday, June 20, at 9:30 a.m. The Super Bowl will be aired Saturday, June 26, at 7:30 p.m. on Channel 4 and WBAL-TV, Channel 11.