It was a cloudy weekday evening at Van Nuys Middle School in the San Fernando Valley. Fallen leaves dotted the campus, and a brief drizzle speckled windshields.
After school ended, over 100 students crowded into the auditorium, faces painted blue, pom-poms in hand, to cheer on their friends in a simulated version of the game show “Jeopardy!”
The tradition started last year, when a parent with a connection to the show proposed the idea to the school’s magnet coordinator, Joshua Rosenthal.
This year, over 1,000 students at the school took a qualifying test. On Thursday, finalists from each grade faced off. When school ended, it was time for the final battle: the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade champions played against one another.
That’s how sixth-grader Juan Muldong, seventh-grader Andrew Espinoza, and eighth-grader Anka Trendafilova wound up wearing matching blue T-shirts, standing side by side, heads nervously bobbing.
At stake: a seat in a Long Beach schools version of the game show’s Tournament of Champions, two tickets to anywhere JetBlue travels, and pride.
PBS host Mark Walberg stood in for Alex Trebek. He read the categories, culled from the school’s curriculum, including It Starts With A, Add 5 Numbers, Spanish Colors, It’s in Antiques and Duh.
Though Juan snagged an early, easy clue — “It’s the night ‘Saturday Night Live’ is on” — Anka quickly took the lead. Her hand moved to the buzzer like a hummingbird, and she guessed nearly every question correctly.
One clue: “The first American boys’ name in the alphabet.”
“What is Aaron?” she responded, bringing her total to $3,600. Juan shook his head.
Next up: It starts with A, for $800. “Another word for donkey.”
Andrew hit his buzzer, but answered tentatively. “What is an … ass?”
“Welcome to the game, and congratulations, you’re allowed to say ‘ass’ in front of the entire class,” Walberg said as students giggled.
They flew through Spanish colors. By the time they got to rojo — red — Andrew had $1,400, Anka $4,200. Could the younger kids come close?
By the time the first round ended, Juan had $1,800, Andrew had $1,200, and Anka had $5,600.
Anka and Juan lost $400 when they gave the wrong date for Earth Day. Anka again had a long streak of winners.
But to the chagrin of the audience, they all missed an easy question: “In Spanish, this month is enero.”
“January!” their classmates screamed.
By the end of the round, Andrew had a negative score, so only Anka and Juan could wager on Final Jeopardy. Anka, the eighth-grader, had $14,800 — and Juan had $7,400, exactly half.
The category was Technology. Walberg read the clue: “Used as a charger or to transfer information between electronic devices, this three-letter interface is identified by a trident logo.”
After listening to the famed, ticking “Jeopardy!” music, the two revealed their answers.
“What is a head?” Juan asked. Incorrect. He should have said, “What is a USB?”
He had wagered all his money — precisely enough to tie with Anka if he had answered correctly. But now he had none.
Anka also got this one wrong: “What is a plug?”
Luckily for her, she was good at math. She wagered zero, knowing that in the worst case scenario she and Juan would have finished in a tie.
The auditorium erupted in cheers, and last year’s winner came out with a giant piece of poster board for Anka — not a check, but a JetBlue gift certificate.
After her big win, Anka answered questions in short, spare sentences.
Turns out she had a pretty simple strategy: “I clicked the easiest answers first.”