When MEA member Ben Henri won this year’s Teachers Tournament on the long-running game show Jeopardy!, he returned home with something beyond the $100,000 in winnings. Henri found an extended support network in the educators he defeated for the grand prize.
Of the 15 tournament competitors, 14 remained in touch months later – meeting virtually each week to play trivia games. More than that, they have acted as a support system providing comfort and encouragement, the Grosse Pointe vocal music teacher said.
“They innovate, they care about their students, and they’re trying to advocate and think about the future and what the classroom is going to look like, so it’s encouraging to know these teachers,” Henri said. “They’re wonderful people, and I know they will do the absolute best they can for their students.”
The global pandemic has revealed the consequences of decades of steadily declining taxes and spending on public services, and he worries about the future of education, Henri said. The coronavirus has “laid bare” societal disparities and inadequacies in the social safety net, including education, “which has continually gotten the short end of the stick,” he added.
“I’m confident in the abilities and stick-to-itiveness of my colleagues, but if teacher compensation isn’t adequate, and if the resources aren’t there for us to reinvent our job in the space of weeks, then it makes it difficult to recruit people and to do our jobs.”
Teaching remotely last spring was challenging in a performance-based class such as vocal music. Henri taught theory and had students practice sight reading, but he hopes to lean on old and new support networks to share ideas for the difficult road that’s ahead in dealing with the pandemic.
The Teachers Tournament was filmed in February before the coronavirus forced schools to close. The episodes didn’t begin airing until May 25 – the day that George Floyd died at the hands of police, which quickly prompted Black Lives Matter protests in response.
“I wanted people to watch the tournament, but at the same time it felt really out place and not right to be joyous about something in this current moment of our social and political climate,” Henri said.
For nearly four months, he had kept the secret about his victory from everyone except his wife. Immediately after he returned to school following the four-day trip to Los Angeles, he told students he could answer general questions about the experience but not about the results.
“Especially at the middle school level, some of the students tried to trick me into giving information,” he said. “They’d say, ‘Was there a place for you to change clothes when you needed to?’ Trying to get me to confirm that I was in multiple episodes.”
A few weeks later, school across the state were closed in an effort to suppress the novel coronavirus.
Henri has always taught his students to celebrate each other’s successes, whether in musical performance or among the Quiz Bowl team members he coaches at Grosse Pointe North High School. “It makes everything that much sweeter,” he says.
That lesson came full circle when some of his students watched him compete and sent him a video of their “post-game freakout.” One boy said he and friends had to walk around the block to release adrenaline. “He said, ‘Mr. Henri, we’ve done concerts and shows, but my heart has never been racing like this before.’”
Winning involved a mixture of preparation and serendipity. For example, after he advanced to the semifinals, his wife suggested he review Shakespearean history which prompted him to read a brief synopsis of Richard III.
“The next day, the question about Richard III was worth 1,200 or 1,600 dollars, and just the night prior I learned something that helped me,” he said.
He believes in the truth of an old saying – luck happens when preparation meets opportunity. A broad knowledge base allowed him to make logical leaps and educated guesses on questions he wasn’t sure about.
“There was one question in the semi-final about a city in the Netherlands where they’re known for making ceramics. The category was all five-letter words that start with the letters D-E, and I knew one five-letter city that starts with D-E; I had no idea if it had anything to do with ceramics, but it does sound Dutch.
“I buzzed in and said, ‘Delft.’ And my wife and I were watching the episode together, and she says, ‘How did you know that?’ I said, ‘At some point in my past I must have heard it.’ Like anything – you practice a sport or an instrument – sometimes you get in the zone and things just flow to you.”
It runs in his family. One of Henri’s three brothers was a two-day champion as a regular contestant in 2013. And his professional musician wife, Kate Connolly, took the online quiz to qualify for the show and scored better than he did.
“I’m trying to get her on the show now, because she’s very smart and it would be fun if three people from the same family were able to compete.”
Henri grew up watching Jeopardy! in a family of trivia buffs who liked to play the board game Trivial Pursuit. He loved puzzles and games and joined a program similar to Quiz Bowl in high school (known as Academic Challenge in Ohio where he grew up).
He was able to watch the final episode of this year’s Teachers Tournament on a Zoom call with his parents, family members, and friends. Heading into the last night of a two-night championship round, only $1,600 separated the three competitors – all of whom missed the Final Jeopardy question on the first night.
As the Final Jeopardy round approached on the second night, Henri wagered just enough to hold on to his lead in case he missed the question. The category was broad – 18th Century Literature. “That’s a lot of books,” he said.
As soon as he heard the clue, he was flooded with relief. The answer involved the satirical novel by Jonathan Swift published in 1726, Gulliver’s Travels, which he read in high school and watched in a television mini-series adaptation.
“I’ve really made an effort to better myself in literature, and it just happened to be one of the books I am most familiar with from that time period,” he said. “As soon as I got my answer correct, and they flashed $100,000 on the screen, my whole Zoom call went wild.”
After getting the call in January to appear in the Teachers Tournament, Henri prepared himself using the Jeopardy! archives and a trivia quiz website – Sporcle – also used by his Grosse Pointe North Quiz Bowl team.
“Every day in class I brought a Trivial Pursuit card in and the students and I would do a card or two so they could feel like they had some ownership in helping me prepare,” he said.
And he listened to his own advice – words of wisdom he shares with students – to deal with nerves and coming back after a mistake. The only time he felt his heart race was when he waited in the green room for his name to be called.
“I would do a lot of, as they call it in yoga, victorious breath to try and control my heart rate.”
With mistakes, it’s important to have a short-term memory and let it go, he said. “I always tell my students it’s not the mistake that matters – it’s the recovery. If you mess up, just move right along. Audiences tend to be forgiving and want to see you succeed.”
Likewise, the crew on the show wanted contestants to succeed, so they helped people to relax by supplying water, advice, pencil and paper for calculating wagers, and time to get used to the set before cameras turned on and the lights and audience warmed the frigid temperatures on stage.
For many contestants over the years, timing the click of the buzzer button is a tricky part of being on the show. No one can buzz in before host Alex Trebek finishes speaking. Lights around the edge of the game board show when buzzers unlock. An early push briefly locks the buzzer.
“It involves an interesting combination of skills,” Henri said. “The first is knowledge, then recall, then timing.”
He was excited to meet Trebek, the iconic host who has appeared on Jeopardy! since 1984. Trebek has continued hosting while battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer, a fact that did not escape Henri’s notice.
“When he walked out, the reality of the situation hit me – this is really happening; we are on stage, and there is the man, an institution – and also immediately I was thinking about the condition he is in and the struggle he’s going through. Pancreatic cancer is what took my wife’s mom, and it’s just the worst.”
Henri was thrilled to be able to interact with Trebek in four different appearances and have “what felt like some pretty good conversations with him.” In one, Henri mentioned that he performed on an album that won a Grammy award during his undergraduate time at University of Michigan.
“I think his response was like, ‘That’s hot stuff,’ or something like that. And I was like, ‘Oh – I got Alex to say hot stuff!’”
He plans to use the winnings from the show to pay down debts, travel, save, and make donations. “At 37, I still have undergraduate loans,” he said.
Originally he studied engineering at UM but didn’t enjoy it. Friends suggested he would make a good teacher – so he followed his love of marching band, glee club, and acapella groups toward a career he’s loved for 13 years so far.
“I see a smaller cross-section of the student population than an English teacher, but I see the students for three to four years and get that depth of connection with them,” he said. “It’s fun to see the kind of people they become and to know somewhere along the line maybe I helped them learn or gain a little bit of confidence.”
He hopes the ongoing public health crisis will cause people to press for greater support of public education moving forward.
“People always say they value the role of education, and polls consistently show teachers near the top of the ‘most trusted’ list. But public support for educators doesn’t always get transferred into policy support at the legislative end. That needs to change.”