How I got started in quizbowl, and how I got started in quizbowl for keeps

I grew up in Hilliard, in Nassau County, Florida. Look at your map of Florida, and then look for that little bump on the far northeast side, where the border between Florida and Georgia does that little dance because of the St. Mary’s River. I grew up in the far northwest corner of that Northeast Florida bump, just off US 1, going to high school in Florida and going to church on the other side of the state line in Folkston, Georgia. I was a nerd, and I was a bit out of place, and even though I didn’t really think it was true at the time, I was in a very good place to be a bit out of place.

I played quizbowl in high school. I think it was quizbowl. It was the “Hi-Q” circuit that was contested in smaller Northeast Florida counties around Jacksonville. I don’t know if the questions were similar to the Delco Hi-Q game that runs now, but I remember the tossups — y’know, the questions that have everybody on the buzzer, trying to be first with the right answer — being longer and something close to what we call “pyramidal,” obscure at the start, but getting clearer and more obvious as the question goes on.

My most vivid high school memory involved a tossup where the answer was binary fission (I’m dang sure all the clues were about bacteria or other such prokaryotes) and opposing team tried to buzz early answering “asexual reproduction” and rather than waiting for the question’s end I tried to vulture up “sexual reproduction,” which led to the captain telling me forcefully after the match “look, Pearson, of all the players on this team, you’re the one who should never buzz in about sex!”

This would have been 1987, for the record. So I can confirm: for multiple decades, nerds have tried to make themselves look smarter than they actually are and have been horribly embarrassed for it.

I played that silly buzzer game pretty faithfully for most of my high school education. It wasn’t that big of a thing; we never won first place or got any significant trophies that I can recall. I did get an invitation in my junior and senior years to a Florida state championship representing Nassau County (in a tournament that was a predecessor to the Panasonic Academic Challenge, which was weird and nonpyramidal and had all the players on a team around one buzzer and had nothing to do with quizbowl whatsoever).

And I went to college in the dark days between the end of televised College Bowl and the emergence of the collegiate quizbowl circuit, and so I didn’t even think twice about those buzzer games when I went to college; I just assumed that was it for academic competition.

There are a lot of stories that fall in the interim that showed that I was wrong, and that sparked a fire in me for this quizbowl game. Stories of being a quizmaster for middle school games in Cochran, Georgia and Rome, Georgia. Stories of my first conversation with the man who’d become my “partner in crime”, Erskine Thompson. A conversation with Rachel Wooddall after one biology class, and James Schroeder turning up at my office door to talk trivia later that week. A fateful lunch with Gordon Carper, and my first time meeting Charlie Steinhice.

Stories of discovering college students having the experience I never got to have and wanting students of my own to experience it. Stories of the faithful crew of students over seven years that created a small legacy known as Shorter Academic Bowl at a small Baptist college in Northwest Georgia. Stories of so many friends and compatriots that I gathered close on broad path between Tuscaloosa and Chattanooga, maybe even too many names to mention, all of whom deserve a greater recognition one day for all they’ve fed into my life.

(All this today will be long enough as it is!)

But this particular story needs to start in 2011, when I had taken a flyer on a job at Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, and I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself without a college team to advise, and I decided I needed to contact some local high school quiz teams and put out some feelers. 

The very first email I sent was to the person that the state Scholastic Bowl program (which seemed to be linked with the athletic programs, weirdly) listed as the contact at the Virginia High School. See, there are two high schools on the two sides of the state line that went straight through downtown Bristol. The high school to the north was Virginia High School. The high school to the south was…wait for it…Tennessee High School. Nyuk nyuk nyuk.

(I couldn’t find an equivalent contact at Tennessee High, and the email I did send went into a black hole and I never could build a connection. If you’re reading this and you have anything to do with academic competition at Tennessee High, I still want to talk to you.)

(Anyway.)

The name of the contact at Virginia High was Carol Propst. The email I sent was a very boilerplate “oh hi, I’m a new professor at the college across town, I’ve done this quizbowl thing for a bit now, if there’s anything a weirdo like me can help don’t hesitate to ask.” (I may not have said “weirdo”, but I was definitely thinking it.)

I got a first reply back within 24 hours. Thank you, so glad you’re here, we definitely would like to meet you and spend some time with you, we always need extra staffers when we host and there will certainly be a way for you to plug in.

I got a second reply back within 72 hours. Oh, by the way, our district coaches’ meeting is at Chili’s in a couple of days, and I know you might have plans, but if you don’t, would you mind joining us? We’d love to have you.

And so I wound up around a table with Carol Propst and Hunter Meade from Virginia High, Susan King from John Battle, Mary Stanley from Lebanon, Sarah Whisenhunt and Mary Alice McClellan from Gate City, and Angela Thomas and Jillian Skidmore from Lee — the coaches of the Clinch Mountain District of the old Region 1D of the Virginia High School League.

So many good things in my life in this past decade follow threads that can be traced straight back to that first meeting, nearly seven years ago now, and to the openness those eight people had to me and to my presence. The VHSL Scholastic Bowl game was a new format to me, and I needed to observe it and bring myself to a place where I understood it. But this became the first season of my life when I was completely focused on observing students in high school programs, in a reasonably strong structure, and getting to know the students playing quiz games at the high school level, where they were at, and learning how I could be most helpful to them.

And I had no idea in August 2011 how much fun I was going to start having.

Over seven years, through the failure of that flyer of a job and the closure of Virginia Intermont, through two years spent four hours away in the dead-center of Tennessee, and through a fitful return to the central Appalachians south of the Virginia/Tennessee state line, and through the painfully slow connection with a host of new (and renewed) relationships on the Tennessee side, the immediacy of those connections in Southwest Virginia sustained and grew. The relationships that formed in those first years, with coaches and with players and even a few parents and community members, slowly started to become relationships with dear friends. As the VHSL went through its reclassifications and its ups and downs, the connection with five schools morphed into twelve, in what’s now known as the Mountain 7 District (where John Battle and Gate City and Lee landed, along with Abingdon, Ridgeview, Union, and Wise County Central) and the Southwest District (where Virginia High and Lebanon found themselves alongside Richlands, Tazewell and Marion Senior).

And as the schools across classifications started to realize they had common cause and they could play more games than the Virginia-rules Scholastic Bowl format, that there was such a thing as tossup/bonus quizbowl, and as another hero of this story — an alumnus from Honaker High School in the coalfields named Jacob Mitchell — went off to Yale and made a Facebook group to help keep tabs and help others keep tabs on the games back in their schools in other districts I don’t know near as well as I should, a thing started to exist called the Southwest Virginia Academic Team Alliance.

Which quickly took the obvious acronym SWATA. (If you ain’t from around here, don’t ask.)

I’m at once a central part of this story and yet completely peripheral to it. There were coaches and players who literally willed a new competitive circuit into existence as their own districts didn’t get them the games they needed to improve, and as schools that did go far afield to get those games saw that there would be demand for games locally. I found the job at my school in East Tennessee for Fall 2016; the first SWATA tournament schedule for 2016-2017 was decided upon before I had found a house upon my return. All there seemed for me to do was what I had done in the past – turning up at the meetings, exercising my loud voice asking how I could help, offering whatever expertise that I could, and just reading every game and sharing the joy of the game with some new friends.

And every now and again, I took some dumb selfies with some of the players.

But this was fresh and new. The students who played when I first started reading Scholastic Bowl games in Southwest Virginia were now ready to help staff, to take part in the reading themselves, to become leaders. The generations were turning and new students were hearing stories from players who had first gotten excited when I was around. And the excitement was feeding upon itself.

I’ve been blessed to be a part of Scholastic Bowl, of quizbowl, of SWATA in Southwest Virginia for these past seven years, and to see that excitement build, to see it become its own entity, and to see the new generation of leaders start to emerge from the player ranks. And the real blessing is seeing those leaders emerge to see something that I never could see graduating from high school — a broader picture of a game to find a place within, something to call their own, something to help those who come after them aspire to.

So, a new thing. 

I worked my first National Scholastic Championship this year, put on by the Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence. I was a quizmaster for some of the best high school teams in America, and I read games at a level that I really never saw myself working in.

You see, I still see myself as that kid from Hilliard Middle/Senior High School who has no business answering any question about sex ever. I went to science fairs and to state Beta convention and to summer programs at Stetson University and the University of Florida and I listened to the kids from the big high schools and wondered what it would be like to have those resources. So much of my own connection to the small schools of Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee is that feeling I had talking to those students when I was a high school senior, the knowledge that the students on these teams in Southwest Virginia are way more like I was then than they are like most of the players who compete at the highest levels at a tournament like PACE NSC.

So to sit in a room with Battle Ground Academy and LASA A in a match that Means Things, and I’m the guy reading it, is just all manner of weird and unexpected and What Am I Doing Here.

And in the midst of that elite tournament, an old friend asked me if I’d consider something, and I told him I’d think about it if he was cool with me being my obnoxious small-school self in that role, and he said that’s kind of why he was asking me to consider that something. Which knocked me over a little bit.

And I talked to a couple of people about that some more.

And where this all leads is the announcement today that I am a new member of the Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence. 

Go click through and look at that list of new members, too. That’s an amazing group; if you know anything at all about quizbowl at the highest levels, and the work that those players and leaders have done, you know how humbled I am to be on it. It has me EVEN MORE What Am I Doing Here, but also incredibly grateful. 

Because, ultimately, what apparently appeals to this club that wants to have me as a member is the fact that I care about outreach in this game, and that I care about outreach in places where that outreach doesn’t traditionally happen — away from the big schools, and in the rural places that never receive the attention or the respect they deserve.

Places in Virginia like Honaker, and Tazewell, and Gate City.

Places in Georgia like Calhoun, and Lindale, and Cochran, and Folkston.

Places in Florida like Hilliard. 

The money may go into our big cities. The attention may turn to what happens near a large media center, at an elite school. But so much of our education happens away from those eyes, at schools that form the center of small towns, or that are found in the center of forests – or the center of a mountain gap. So much of our education happens where the environment isn’t elite, and where life happens day-to-day, and the future is never as certain as we’d like. 

I have found this small avenue to let students in these places know that they’re important, and that the study they do matters, and maybe they can play a silly buzzer game and I can make a big deal of it and they can be a little bit like a rock star for a day while I shill their greatness to all the educators on social media I’m blessed to have paying attention to me. I’ve found this role to play, and I’m super-grateful for it. 

And if that is going to be called outreach and is going to be appreciated and I can get this little thing that feels oh-so-close-to-the-honor-of-a-lifetime for doing it, how can I be anything but grateful?

So hi, you folks of the Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence. I’m obnoxious. I’m still not entirely sure you want me, except apparently you took a vote and you do. 

I will continue to be obnoxious, and I will continue to tell stories of the place I’m from and the place I live until you understand how important these places are. You will get bored of me very quickly. 

But let me say this as well, right from the start: I’m so thankful to all of you, for all you do for this game, and for the privilege of being counted among you. 

And if I do anything of importance at all, I have Carol Propst’s email. Please send her a note and say “thank you”.

Because she welcomed me into this group of giants, and I really do stand on their shoulders. 

VHSL_state_reading_2014

(The most professional staff at the VHSL Scholastic Bowl State Championships at the College of William and Mary on February 24, 2014. The match was Woodgrove vs. Loudoun County. The turtleneck was distinctive then, and remains so. The photo comes from VHSL Activities.)

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