Monday, March 8, 2010

Lost in Jeopardy

Question: "Tony Parker, Hugh Hefner, and Kevin Korpi all have this in common?"

Give up? . . . . . .

Answer: "What is 'We won't be playing for the Spurs anytime soon--nor have we been in Cliff Clavin's kitchen.'"

I DID, however, try out for Jeopardy recently.

Inspired by reading A.J. Jacobs "Know It All," in which he tried out for Jeopardy, interviewed Alex in his home (after mistaking him for a friendly gardener), but never got the call to be on the actual show (he did, however, get onto "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," only to lose before the $32,000 lock-in by mistaking "erythrocyte" as "plasma" and not the obvious (answer that wasn't there) "parasite that feasts on erythroes"), I put my name in the hat to audition for the premiere "how much do you not know" game show (even though the money-to-knowledge ratio is MUCH higher on the Millionaire show . . . who, in their right mind would want to win more money by expending less mental energy on an inferior show??)

For the first time ever, Jeopardy was allowing auditions online rather than forcing a bunch of nerds to show at a physical location to take a paper test, much to the rejoice of socially-awkward brainiacs who otherwise would never get a chance to be on the show because it meant getting dressed, leaving the house, and interacting with other people's shoes. I liked the idea because of the convenience and the prospect of putting my 110 wrds-pr-minutz to dud usse withgoooggle as my frend.

I knew that the test would be designed so that even the most-cunning person--who could employ an army of question-googlers at low cost, all hooked up to separate computers, who never thought about what he would do if he ever made air time, other than say "Hi" to his mom before he went into negative land by the end of Double Jeopardy, only to be absent during the Final Jeopardy--would not be able to obtain an advantage over the lesser-cunning but sufficiently-knowledgeable prospective contestant. What I didn't realize is how nerve-racking the show's remedy would be.

Registering online several weeks before the scheduled date (January 27th, 2010 at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time--sure to automatically disqualify anyone west of Georgia unable to do the time conversion), I logged onto the website using my secure password ************************* 30 minutes prior to the test beginning. A countdown clock immediately appeared. I thought only to crack my knuckles and to use the bathroom. Now came the wait, what I thought would be the toughest part.

While I watched the clock slowly click down, I sat in front of the computer pretending to take interest in my kids' day ("Daddy, today we got to hold a rattlesnake at school without wearing gloves!" "Wow, that sounds great. Keep up the great work.") and acquiescing to my wife's every whim ("Honey, should we sell the house and move in with my parents to save money?" "Yeah, sure babe." "Honey, how many pints are there in a gallon?" "Yeah, sure babe." . . . etc). I went through my favorite trivia in my head, mainly sports and presidential. I tried hard to go through my knowledge of European kings and queens, but I kept coming back to . . . "did my kid's say 'rattle' snake??!! Did Cleopatra die of a snake??? well, she's not European . . . supposedly . . . or was it Catherine the Great that died from a snake?? or was it a horse . . . or seahorse . . . "

I had 10 seconds to read each new category, read and process the question from that category, then type in my answer (thank goodness we didn't have to type in each of our answers in the form of a question, but if so required, I had my "Ctrl-V" button ready to automatically insert "Is it " . . . Spelling was not penalized, unless obviously egregiously incorrect (i.e. when I type in 'Montseguer' instead of the correct answer of 'Manhattan,' I shouldn't expect the show to neither offer correct spellings nor infer that I'm from Southwestern Alabama (on the very border of the Eastern/Central time zone).

The countdown reached its finale: 3-2-1

I was in a groove for the first two questions. I even had the hubris to answer question two with 10 seconds to spare, so I clicked the "next question" button rather than using the remaining 10 seconds to relax.

Category: "American Authors" Question: "She scored her first New York Times best-selling book 'The Lovely Bones' in 2002." CRAP! I just mentioned to my wife that I wanted to see the movie. CRAP! Ms. Blair was reading this just the other morning in my tutorials. I even commented to her that I wanted to see the movie. The author's name NEVER came up. Think carefully . . . you saw the cover from halfway across the room . . . what was the name on the bottom of the cover?? CRAP! why could the question not ask "What movie that's currently out in the theater are you most interested in seeing?" CRAP! With my wife and kids hanging over my shoulder, n a long shot, I type in "Danielle Steel" with 5 seconds to go, knowing that typing her tricky name in correctly would earn me partial credit with the Jeopardy judges (it's too bad that they don't accept "Danielle Steel" as an alternate spelling, alias, or pen name of the correct answer "Alice Sebold."

I hoped that the conviction with which I pressed the keyboard keys with what I knew was an incorrect answer, I would still by my family's hero. "Great answer!" said my son, who I think knew deep down it was "Sebold," but who I can't fault for being honest to a monetary and financially-free fault.

Only 47 to go.

And so the next 7 minutes and 50 seconds (I dare not hit "next question" ever again, instead using any extra time until the automatic advance kicked in to beseech my family to just "holler out on the next one if you know for sure!" I figured I'd try to cross the knowledge-gap on the actual show when I actually got there.)

When it was all over, I felt tremendously tense and stressed. Questions that I knew toward the end were made impossible by the ticking clock. Answers like "(Is it ) the lost symbol" to questions like "What is Dan Browns most recent best-seller that takes place in Washington D.C.?" (I had just read the book in two sittings not two months prior) eluded me. If it weren't for my calm, collected, acutely-ill, and selectively dishonest wife answering through her sudden cough, I would have missed an easy one! I feel like I answered at least thirty of the questions with certain accuracy (including spelling). I think I made great, educated guesses on another half of the other 20 ("Sanskrit" is ALWAYS a great answer to an "ancient language" question.) On the remaining ten, I was just typing in bogus answers at the remote chance of impressing my family and being correct.

As the test expired, and I was taken to my exit page, congratulating me for my nerdiness and willingness, I expected to see how I did. Instead, I was "greeted" with the disclaimer about how "scores will NEVER EVER EVER be revealed," and prospective candidates can be notified by phone or email within the next calendar year.

WT . . ?

How anticlimactic was THAT?!?!

And so I walked away from the computer on my 36th birthday to have a slice of birthday cake with my family at an hour way after my kids' bedtime, not knowing if I would turn 37 without a phone call from Alex Trebek.

My family still treated my like I was the smartest one in the family, even though my kids know better than to insult their mother so, perhaps because it was my birthday. I wouldn't trade my family for all the Jeopardy winnings in the world.

Two final notes:
1. My son's been watching recorded episodes of Jeopardy with me every night since. He knows who Alice Sebold is, and he definitely knows who Alex Trebek is. Fortunately, he and I get a chance to meet Mr. Trebek in person on April 12th, 2010 at Texas State University. I can only imagine the things my son will say to the "polite gardener."

2. A.J. Jacobs, the insightful, humorous, and great author (yes, great in the fantastic P.J. O'Rourke sense) who inspired me to finally try out (and whose "Year of Living Biblically" I'm currently reading and who's "Guinea Pig Diaries" sits on my desk to be read next) has an insatiable proclivity to "Google his own name," despite it being against the bible's teachings of vanity. I you, A.J., come across this blog, I invite you to email me at, subject line "The REAL A.J. Jacobs" (I get emails from those claiming to be you quite frequently). I've got some ideas to share with you, among them, Descartes penchant for cross-eyed women.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

An important question

I've often wondered if my bombastic, loose, witty lessons combined with my adult ADD (easily distracte---boy is it a beautiful day for a run today, if only my knees would cooperate), and minor Turret's (I have a difficult time having unspoken thoughts) help or hinder my ability to teach. In fact, my proclivity to wander off subject, take time out to explore a good joke, or interject random bits of trivia in no particular language is the main reason I entitle my blog "Off On A Tangent," that and that it was a great math pun (oh, yeah, I often say things in class that are punny).

My digressions tend to get worse throughout the day as I get tired, hungry, or begin thinking about what I'll do after school. They even get worse throughout the year, as my educational endurance reaches into its reserves. This year's been even worse having to adjust from a block schedule. I'm pretty much slap happy and sometimes ridiculously delirious by 2:00pm. Compound all that with the fact that I don't eat breakfast nor do I eat lunch (13 years now), relying instead on my morning dose of caffeine via 12 cups of dark, black coffee. By mid-afternoon, I'm not only hungry, my body is crashing. None of this is necessarily any good for my last period class of the day, a class that, more than any other of my classes, requires me to be focused, explicitly clear, and cognitively cogent. That class is BC calculus.

This time of year, in BC, we're getting into some pretty high-powered math, abstruse concepts and often paradoxical results (see Torricelli's Trumpet for an example), but the concepts become even more difficult to understand when they're not presented well. Granted, the students I'm expecting to just "pick up" on the ideas and their implications are among the top math students in the world, which means they'll probably understand in spite of any dereliction of duty on the didactical dictator's part. Everything has always worked out in the end, meaning all have gone on to do well on the AP exam in May, a successful, well-adjusted university career, and beyond. As a result, I've never tried to temper my enthusiasm or ballistic approach, but lately I've noticed that, left unchecked, I've progressed further and further, becoming what might seem more like incompetent lunatic, rather than eccentric math teacher.

I'm beginning to feel the judgmental eyes of the BC class as they wonder if their mathematical future is in good hands. What they don't realize is that I'm trying to come up with wonderful, meaningful examples on my feet, to try to make the lesson "fresher," more "relevant," and "customized," but it's very hard to come up with such examples from the hip. It's even more difficult when your exhausted, hungry, and "crazy." While my intentions are good, many of my impromptu examples have been dead ends, and while I can extract a valuable lesson from each of them (.... soooo this series actually diverges, ......sooooo we should never assume lest we make one of ourselves, .....soooooo here's why you should get plenty of sleep and plan all your extemporaneous speeches in advance), it's hard to save face in the eyes of our society's future top scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, clothing designers, and stay-at-home-parents.

So I'm contemplating the question: should I teach on the straight-and-narrow and lose all the interesting, memorable follies, foibles, and fallacies that go along with learning and teaching a great group of students, or should I continue to teach like I do, running the risk of a few moments where I look like an unprepared, incompetent, mathematician gone bonkers?

Or perhaps . . .

I could just start eating lunch?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


It's madness I tell you, we must be in March.
I'm monitoring so actively, my shirt's losing its starch.

Today is a big day, it's TAKS ELA
and there's so many rules that I have to obey.

No websites to browse, and nothing to read,
it's going to be a long day indeed.

I'll read like a robot in monotone voice
reminding the students to bubble their choice.

Read exactly what's written, there's no script deviation.
(These type performances get no standing ovation.)

"Backpacks to the front, turn off your cell phones.
bathroom's one at a time, you must go alone."

"No drinks except water, hurry, finish your drink.
There's no proof that energy drinks help your brain think."

"Speaking of brain food, have I some for you,
I'll now pass out something on which you may chew."

I then hand out crackers, and a peppermint candy.
"If you're hungry or've got bad breath, they'll each come in handy."

"Turn to page to in your book, No not that one,
Please don't turn at all 'til my words are done."

"Your test booklet's also known as 'the test,'
I'm not 'posed to say, but I will, 'do your best!"

"Your answer sheets the page on which you will bubble.
Please raise your hand if you are having trouble."

"You may begin," I eventually say,
As the ELA students begin to wend their own way

Through a myriad of passages that they all have to read,
it'll be a long day for them, too, quite indeed.

Now time moves so slowly that I hardly can feel it.
I'm watching the clock as if someone will steal it.

The only sounds made are pages turning to the next,
and the occasional grunt from the student whose perplexed.

Now I just sit there, twiddling my thumbs,
looking all around, smacking my gum.

I try to pass time by popping my knuckles,
A student just farted, now I'm suppressing the chuckles.

I'm crossing my legs, one over the other,
and sharpening pencils, one after another.

Humming all kinds of great songs in my head,
stopping only to put a sharp point on a lead.

I can't do much else, lest the students all cheat.
Then I lose my job and have nothing to eat.

No, I've got to keep watching them, I must stay alert.
"Is that boy out of dress code? Should he tuck in his shirt?"

Many times there's eye contact. "Great, they think that I'm leering."
"Wait just a second, that guy's wearing an earring."

Oh the grand thoughts that do go through my mind,
"Did I start them too late, is the world now behind?"

My pacing is wearing out holes in my floor,
Oh great! there's some action, a kid's started to snore.

I wake him up gently and set him on course,
(he looks more bored than I do, now I'm filled with remorse.)

But no one may sleep during a standardized test.
Those without diplomas will surely attest.

If you're not awake, then you can't show your knowledge,
much less can you go to a nice four-year college.

To their every need, I eagerly cater.
Sometimes, though, it feels like I'm just a TAKS waiter.

What's with all the pencils?! I make lots of trips,
I feel I should ask if they'd like salsa and chips.

There's so many students who are sniffling and sneezing,
(perhaps its because I keep my room freezing.)

At least I have tissues, gives me something to do,
walk around with Kleenex asking, "have you nasal goo?"

No, I really don't do that, but I think it, it's true.
They get their own tissues. What's a bored teacher to do?

On part one, for each student, verbal aid is okay,
Dictionaries, Thesauruses, can help compose essays.

But part two is different, they must spell on their own,
Even if, for them, the true's spelling's unknown.

I move Dictionaries from desk A to desk B,
as I hope my break's coming soon, 'cause I gotta pee.

(dang all that coffee, by now I should know,
that favors are returned ala "quid pro quo')

I've ne'er given potty breaks an anyone lately,
I regret that now that I've got to pee greatly.

Great, just on time, my relief is here,
"I'll be back in a flash! You just saved my career!!!"

Returning refreshed, I can now go all day,
We're all that much closer for ELA going 'way.

But wait, who's on part two and who's still on one?
Part one uses dictionaries, part two uses none!

But while I was out, only one student switched,
(Thank goodness she told me 'bout which one was which.)

The next phase is blurry, I'm not sure how it passed,
I don't mean to say it went by real fast.

As the clock on the wall slowly ticked toward one-o- clock,
We all leaned towards the door like a giant trapped flock.

Then the announcement came, "Students please go to fourth."
and with the announcement, all the students went forth.

To go to real classes, they couldn't wait to return,
Who knew they'd all be so eager to learn.

But learning was hard with such 'breviated classes,
Teachers barely had time to count lads and lasses.

I spent my few minutes with each of my own,
finding the volume of right circular cones.

Then the day finally ended, we were done with the drill.
At least we get to do it all again, come April.

Monday, March 1, 2010

I ain't 'fraid of no Spring

Today's not only the first day of March (already!) but also the first day of the work week (already!!) and the first day of the 5th six weeks grading period on campus (already!!!). So while it's a day of new beginnings, including this beginning paragraph of my now "plan your mortgage payment around my consistently reliable" monthly blogs, it's also a red-letter day for things coming to an end.

Sadly, the weekend is over once again. It seems like there's always more hours between Monday and Friday than there ever are between Saturday and Sunday (and I guess that's for a reason). I never get the time to do all the things I always mean to on the weekends. With all the practice we have getting used to Monday morning arriving all too quickly, you'd think we'd be great at facing Mondays, but it never gets any easier. At least we had some great weather yesterday and Saturday, and it was so nice to be watching it through a window while labored over a computer writing three more letters of recommendations. I did get some great time with my own two children (and even my wife!), after which I told them that I was "sincerely grateful for the time we spent together, and that I enthusiastically and wholeheartedly recommended them for a scholarship." Indeed, the weekends should be called the "strong" ends.

Good thing I love my job, so Mondays aren't really something I dread. In fact, I was rather excited about going to school today, because today marked the first day of the end of something else: my tenure as interim Statistics teacher. No offense to all the wonderful stat students I got to teach the past two months, and no offense to statistics itself, which is, after all, still math (and boy do I love math at least as much as I love jalapenos, and I DO love jalapenos and coffee (not together, though) (see previous blog entries)). Rather, the relinquishing of statistics to its rightful, maternity-leave-returning teacher gives me much of my free time back, time that can now be spent doing other productive things like blogging, helping my daughter spell "George Washington," trimming Crepe Myrtles, feeding my two dogs (they're so awfully thin!), writing letters of recommendation before 2 a.m., and calculating confidence intervals just 'cause I wanna.

Best of all, the temporary teaching arrangement, which required my department head to teach my 2nd period precal class after observing me teach it 1st period so that she could ensure that my own 2nd period precal class, the one I would be leaving in the hands of the department head so that I could go across the hall to teach statistics to a different class, which I learned to also call "my own," would get the exact same lesson so that when I quizzed them the next day, when I was back, while the stat class worked on a worksheet that covered the lesson from the previous day, would be able to do well on the quiz I was to give them that covered precal material I did not teach them but that they were still, nonetheless, taught. Yeah, all that is over. The department head gets her planning period back, I get my 2nd period precal class back full-time, the returning stat teacher gets her stat class back (albeit much, much smaller since her absence spanned the semester break at which time many stat students dropped), and the stat-teacher's full-time substitute, who was teaching the stat teacher's geometry classes every day but not the stat class but who rather graded geometry papers and entered grades in the stat classroom while I taught the stat class while the department head taught my precal class while the original stat teacher was at home spending deserving, quality time with her newborn daughter, in the house, that incidentally, Jack built . . . I forgot where I was going with this.

Anyway, the smell of spring is in the air, even if we're smelling it outside with our winter coats on, prepared on any given night to still leave our hose-bibs dripping outside during a flash-Texas-overnight freeze. Everything is being reborn and coming out of the winter dormancy (if you're St. Augustine grass or Crepe Myrtles), hibernation (if you're a bear or a lazy math student), of the doldrums (if you're a wind north of the equator of prone to the blaaaahs). There are only 3 very busy and exciting months left in the school year, during which softball and baseball seasons must be played, getting ready for AP exams must be gotten, Swine Flu must be avoided, Prom dates must be finalized, banquets much be planned, and seniors begin to feel both the excitement of graduation and the nervousness that comes with the reality that they will be leaving their household to enter college--the first step into the unforgiving dog-eat-dog world. It's also a time for teachers to dig in their heels and pull each and every student across the finish line. Without the stat class, there are just fewer people for me to have to pull across that line.

Not that I'm not strong enough to do it, I just need all my strength to finish writing all those letters of recommendations.

It's time to step up and spring forward (almost, officially, it's 2 a.m. on March 14, 2010).