Singing the Praises of Scholastic Glory : Taft Rally Hails National Champs

Times Staff Writer

Taft High School senior Michael Pocrass, the quietest member of the school’s national champion academic decathlon team, sat alone for just a minute amid a storm of noise Friday.

More than 2,000 students were whooping it up on the school’s lawn as the marching band played, and a helicopter carrying Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley buzzed the Woodland Hills campus before landing on a nearby athletic field.

“This is what we worked for, all the attention,” said Pocrass, smiling and staring out over the crowded Taft campus, decorated with banners and balloons. Pocrass and his eight teammates waited on a platform for the Los Angeles Unified School District awards ceremony.


“It’s what we expected, what we hoped for,” Pocrass said.

Hard Work ‘Worth It’

Deborah Sim, the other quiet member of the group, later told the assembled crowd that the hard work preparing for the academic decathlon “was worth it.”

Forget the quiet anonymity associated with the work of academicians. Some of these scholars are going on “The Tonight Show.”

The letter from President Bush congratulating the Taft team is nice enough, but “we’re seeing about getting them an invitation to the White House,” said Ann Joynt, U.S. Academic Decathlon executive director.

The Taft team’s quick rise to celebrity after the announcement Monday that its members had won the U.S. Academic Decathlon, beating teams from 36 states and two foreign countries, has left little time for reflection or much else. Pocrass’ own moment was soon interrupted by a request for still another television interview. Teammates say they’ve skipped a lot of classes.

“It’s been a very smooth transition for me personally to celebrityhood,” said Taft team member Rodney Crump. “They’re coming for us with a limousine today to do ‘The Tonight Show.’ It feels good.”

Crump and teammates Marc Sarti and Lisa Demsky were picked by producers of “The Tonight Show” to appear on Friday’s show and compete in a mini-quiz contest against host Johnny Carson and sidekick Ed McMahon.


“I’m pretty nervous” about appearing on national television, said Demsky, a student body officer and senior class valedictorian.

Demsky’s mother, Ellen, said invitations and phone calls have poured in nonstop since the group arrived back in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

Hour With Reagan

The team spent an hour Thursday with former President Ronald Reagan in his Century City office. “He was friendly and spent most of the time advocating the American way, and he looked good,” said Shawn Canter.

Team coach and English teacher Arthur Berchin said he has not yet decided whether to continue coaching the academic decathlon program. But he said 30 students are seeking spots on next year’s team.

Bradley was joined in congratulating the Taft team by school district Supt. Leonard M. Britton, school board member Julie Korenstein, who represents the west San Fernando Valley, and United Teachers-Los Angeles President Wayne Johnson.

“You are role models,” Bradley said. He advised the students at the assembly to savor the moment and then continue their work in school.


The decathlon team members, in addition to certificates and plaques, were given $100 savings bonds from a local bank.

Last year, the Taft team finished second in the national contest.

“The difference between coming in first and coming in second is that last year we arrived at LAX to an empty terminal,” Berchin said. “This time we got off the plane, and there were what looked like hundreds of people.”

U.S. Academic Decathlon Questions Officials of the U.S. Academic Decathlon do not make public copies of the written tests taken by contestants, but these are some questions that Taft High School team members recall, and their winning answers:


Q--What book by Owen Wister was the first great Western novel of the latter 19th Century?

A--”The Virginian”

Q--To what school of literature did William Dean Howells’ “The Rise of Silas Lapham” belong?



Q--What is the name of a natural feature of sand or sediment that connects an island to a mainland or other island?

A--A tombolo

Q--What is the most important consideration in selecting a location to build an aluminum smelting plant?


A--The cost of electricity


Q--With exactly 50 feet of fencing, what perimeter lengths are needed to enclose the largest possible yard around a house that has a wall on one side?

A--12.5 by 12.5 by 25 feet




Q--What is atmospheric pressure at sea level?

A--15 pounds per square inch

Q--Why is the sky blue?

A--Blue light waves are scattered by the atmosphere


Q--Who was expelled from the U.S. Socialist Party because of the Anti-Sabotage Amendment?

A--William (Big Bill) Haywood

Q--Who split from the U.S. Socialist Party to form the Communist Labor Party in 1919?

A--John Reed

Fine Arts:

Q--Name two complementary colors that make gray.

A--Blue and orange, among others

Q--Edgar Degas is to Mary Cassatt as who is to Berthe Morisot?

A--Edouard Manet