Ready, Set, Think! : City Academic Decathlon Champion Palisades High Is Cramming and Sharpening Its Competitive Edge to Take on Teams From Throughout State


Hey, dude, check out the waves at Pacific Palisades.

The brain waves, that is.

Surf's up in Room A204 of Palisades High School, where nine seniors in wicked intellectual form are practicing for an academic decathlon state championship that begins Friday. The Palisades team recently won the Los Angeles Unified School District's decathlon.

"It's a great morale booster," said Gerald Dodd, principal of Palisades. "It's rare to see people getting excited about brains . . . the way they do about sports."

The decathlon is a series of tests in 10 different academic areas ranging from literature to macroeconomics. Conceived by Orange County educator Robert Peterson, the competition has in 25 years spread from California to 42 other states. Fans swear that the academic decathlon is every bit as brutal and tense as its athletic counterpart.

Don't believe them? Just try answering a couple of the questions that the Palisades champs pounded each other with during team practice last week. And keep in mind that during the real match, players have only seconds to reply, often to the jeers of an auditorium of competitors.

Day and night observation of clouds is made possible by?

George Wallace's third party was?

The SAGE is designed to investigate what?

(See below for answers.)

Members of the Palisades team have spent up to 25 hours a week since last August studying such questions. Sometimes, they admit, their work seems a bit too close to a never-ending version of Trivial Pursuit. But they learn about a vast array of subjects, including trade, modern art, jazz, Watergate, science fiction and the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey."

"This is basically like going to a whole other school," said Amir Berjis, 17. What makes it worth it? "Winning!" he said.

The worst ordeal by far, students said, is the Super Quiz, a test they must complete in front of thousands of people. Eddy Kup, 17, dreams about it. "I'll get these nightmares," he said. "I'll have all five questions on the Super Quiz, and I don't know any of them. Everybody's screaming, and I'm alone up there, sweating."

Students give much of the credit for their success this year to their coaches, English teachers Donald Walz and Rose Gilbert.

Gilbert, better known on campus as Mama G, has coached Pali's team ever since the event began there 10 years ago. "I didn't know what I was doing," she said. Still, Palisades won the city competition from 1980 through 1985, and in recent years has placed among the top four contenders, filling a display case with trophies.

Gilbert is a tiny woman with a raspy voice and glasses that appear to cover half of her face. She mothers the kids, praises them, nags them, takes them to museums and feeds them boxes of Cheerios for "nutritional energy."

Last week, she handed her team a list of items to take to the state competition, which will be held Friday through March 17 in Riverside. The list includes everything from underwear to dental floss.

Coach Walz said that the students have left him and Gilbert behind and are teaching themselves. "It's all very grueling," he said last week, looking a bit peaked and bleary-eyed. "A lot of the coaches who have won this leave soon thereafter. I can see why."

Other teachers help the team study specialized subjects. Last week, a guest speaker on macroeconomics was Palisades instructor Bill Winkes, who scribbled purple equations all over the already-chaotic blackboard of Room A204.

"The demand curve runs like that," Winkes explained, drawing a line on the board. "But the aggregate supply has a very special shape. It's esotorpic."

The kids appeared to understand what Winkes was talking about. One student even argued with the teacher about the shape of the line.

Are they geniuses? Gilbert was asked. "Naaaahhhh!" she said. "They just work hard."

The students, as they are quick to tell you, aren't even dorky. Thabiti Sabahive gave up track to join the decathlon team. Ritu Batra plays piano and flute. Matt Gelbart, who achieved a perfect score on the Super Quiz in the school district contest, is an actor.

As for the ultimate test of teen normalcy: "We insult each other all the time. We've become good friends," said team captain David Elashoff, 17.

Gilbert chooses the team on the basis of test scores and her sense of how the students will perform under pressure. "I've had kids who cry, but nobody's gotten sick yet," she said.

Another factor in the selection process is pressure from the district to pick a team that reflects the integrated character of the school, Dodd said. Over the past 10 years, busing has helped change the student body from a group of affluent whites to one in which a majority are members of minority groups. The team this year includes an Indian, an Iranian and a black student who is bused in from central Los Angeles.

Dodd is proud of that. "People think that because we have traveling students, the education has fallen down. This shows things aren't so bad in the public schools," he said.

The district is proud of the team, too, Gilbert said. "The city is dying for us to win. We represent Los Angeles."

She's slightly cynical about the hoopla, though. "The (district officials) came and gave us all this rah-rah stuff. Bunk! The superintendent asked what could they do? I told him fix my ceiling."

And what happens to the students when it is all finally over? "Nervous breakdowns," cracked macroeconomics expert Winkes.

Actually, the students plan to go on to college. "It will seem easy to some of them," said Frann Shermet, executive coordinator of the United States Academic Decathlon.

(Answers to the quiz questions:

1. radar and microwave sounders 2. American Independent Party 3. Aerosol in the stratosphere.

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