Right now, all across our area, high school seniors are counting the days until they learn exactly where they will be going to college, nervously wondering whether the applications they sent in months ago — the resumes, essays and personal statements — showed them in the bestest possible light.
Raynell Cooper knows he had to leave out an important fact that might turn the head of an admissions officer: On March 2, the 12th-grader at Rockville’s Richard Montgomery High School won the “Jeopardy!” Teen Tournament. March 2, at least, is when the finals aired, but the episode was actually taped in December. Most of the college applications Ray submitted were due in January. Such is the secrecy surrounding “Jeopardy!” that although Ray knew he had won it all, he couldn’t mention it.
Oh sure, Ray was able to mention that he was a contestant, but he couldn’t tell them he was the champion, lest the news leak out and a vengeful Alex Trebek egg his Rockville home.
“There’s like a contract I had to sign,” said Ray, who said he feels pretty proud that he didn’t spill the beans even when interrogated by his classmates (who, full disclosure, include my daughter).
“It was really rough,” he said. “I had a lot of people coming up to me asking me, trying to get it out of me. One of my classmates, Samantha Reback, was on the show last year. She had a lot of really good questions, and even she wasn’t able to get it out of me.”
Ray has been accepted at three of the five colleges he applied to, but he’s still waiting to hear from Oregon and top choice George Washington University.
“I’m not sure the admissions offices know,” he said. (Hear that, GWU?)
“I kind of wish I was able to put that on there,” Ray said. “I think I probably would have had an essay about ‘Jeopardy!’ if I could have. It was such a tremendous experience, something that’s pretty good for a college essay. There’s a lot of lessons to be taken from it.”
Lessons such as: Study, persevere and know your geography. That last one wasn’t a problem for Ray, who participated in countless middle school geography bees and knows his state capitals inside and out. Some other stuff, not so much. “I’m pretty awful at math,” he said. “I mean, I can do whatever’s given, but I can’t do it in two or three seconds.”
There was another category he was dreading. “I’m not extremely religious, and they do like occasionally to throw out a Bible category,” Ray said. “I had a nightmare that I’d have a slim lead and come to ‘Final Jeopardy!’ and the category would be ‘The Old Testament.’ I didn’t want that to happen.”
It didn’t. The final category was “Landmarks.” Ray was in second place. He decided to bet all his money. The clue: “Officially completed in 1869, it has also been known by its nickname, the Highway to India.”
All together now: What is the Suez Canal?
Ray won $75,000, a nice sum but just enough for a single year at a top college with some money left over for a vacation and, maybe, a car.
The 16-year-old (Ray skipped second grade) is taking five Advanced Placement courses this year, captains his school’s “It’s Academic” team and is on Rockville’s Recreation and Parks Advisory Board. Wherever he goes to college, he plans to study geography and political science. For a career, he’s thinking of cartography or something in government. He worked on a friend’s unsuccessful City Council campaign last year and caught the political bug.
Besides the $75,000, Ray has experienced other trappings of “Jeopardy!” fame: He was recognized in the hallways at school and stopped by a fan in a Staples parking lot.
“The experience was just a lot of fun,” Ray said of being on the venerable quiz show. “All the contestants were so much fun to be around. We tried to have a good time even with the pressure and all the money on the line. . . . I’d be disappointed if I hadn’t won, obviously, but getting an opportunity to go to Los Angeles in December is always fantastic.”
Even if you have to pretend it was March.