The question flashed on the screen: What book followed the tale of two men working a ranch as they dreamed of their own farm and rabbits?
“Of Mice & Men,” I scribbled with the confidence of someone who’s just setting himself up to be embarrassed by a high schooler whose team has won regional competitions for trivia and is prepping to go compete nationally next month.
Meghan Watt, who coaches the state’s deaf and hard of hearing academic bowl team, shook her head. Joan Otterholt, another coach who works for the state Department of Education, held up a red piece of construction paper with “no” written on it in big capital letters. The word “sorry” is beneath it, dulling my lasting pain.
It wasn’t the last time I’d have that piece of construction paper flashed at me Thursday afternoon as I was put through my paces in a mock academic bowl match. But the sorry helped.
Kelly Walsh sophomore and team member Gabe Heuer, meanwhile, held up his own whiteboard. “Of Mice and Men.”
A green piece of paper this time. “Yes.”
Watt explained that the ampersand disqualified my attempt. The judges at these competitions are very persnickety, she explained.
Gabe and his three teammates from across the state — each of whom are deaf or hard of hearing — know this.
If the devil’s in the details, then Lucifer has no chance hiding from these kids.
* * *
Gabe couldn’t remember how he became involved in the team. Otterholt filled in the gap: His father, Brent Heuer, approached her and asked if Gabe could be involved in academic bowl.
A brief period of silence while Gabe thinks about that description.
“OK,” he says.
I spoke with Gabe, his parents, Watt, Otternholt and Kim Reimann, a former competitor’s mom, for 90 minutes this week about the upcoming competition and questions and what it all means to the students. But the competitiveness in me kept hoping we could run through questions. I fancy myself a nerd. Those around me have concluded the same, though I suspect it’s less a compliment than a cold conclusion.
Fortunately, the coaches suggested running through some of the types of questions the students faced during their competitions. I’ve (sometimes) been OK at pub trivia. So even against these seasoned veterans, I hoped to not completely embarrass myself.
During this practice match, we divided into two teams. First, the adults: me (an adult by only the strictest definition), Gabe’s mother, Kathy, and Reimann. Facing off against us were Gabe and Reimann’s son, who isn’t deaf or hard of hearing but was a frequent practice buddy for his sister, a now-graduated former competitor.
The matches are broken into three rounds, starting with a one-on-one trivia challenge between opposing team members. Imagine “Jeopardy” with teams (instead of a buzzer, we used small toy laser guns that made a zapping noise).
The questions cover everything from current events and pop culture to social studies and deaf and hard of hearing culture. Both prompts and responses are displayed on screens for the competitors.
The ampersand disaster, as it’s known around my apartment, wasn’t the first time my haste robbed me of a precious point against Gabe and his teammate. It turns out butchering the spelling of Salvador Dali’s first name will not earn you a point.
Remember when I said I hoped to not embarrass myself?
My error was not to say haste is a strategy to be avoided. You want to press the buzzer (or, in our case, little plastic gun) as quickly as possible. Watt said a number of national competitors are expert speed readers. Others will read from the bottom of the question first, skipping whatever preamble proceeds it. But these competitors are smart, practiced and quick.
Suffice it to say we were soundly beaten in the first round.
It was not a surprise. Gabe and the academic bowl team placed second at a regional competition earlier this year. Now they’re on to the national tournament for the fourth straight year. The trips help the students gain independence, Otterholt said.
“It gives them that confidence that they can get out in the world and do things,” she said, as one parent nodded, “and more than anything it gives them the confidence that they can be college students, too, and be worthy college students.”
Yes, they are good. Take that as both an excuse for our abysmal start and as a piece of dedicated reporting.
* * *
In the next round, each group was able to work as a team to answer the prompts. We were also given calculators, which produced existential dread among the adults. Unsurprisingly, we also lost here. But we managed to nab a few points, highlighted by the fact that we nailed the question about a shape’s perimeter. It’s the little things, folks.
There’s no question the students’ team is competitive; look no further than the thorough whooping they were dishing out. But the team hasn’t always aimed for strong finishes. When Otterholt started the team in 2003, it acted primarily as a confidence- and community-builder for students who may know only a handful of fellow students — or none at all — at their home school who are deaf or hard of hearing.
“That’s Wyoming,” said Otterholt, who often signed as she spoke. “When you know a deaf student, you know all the deaf students in the state. That’s how I’m able to pick up deaf students is because I know where they are in the state, something about all of them.”
The students not only meet young people facing similar challenges across the state, region and nation, but they learn to be advocates for themselves, she and Watt said, both inside and outside of competition. They can challenge answers in the matches, for instance. Reimann’s daughter, Gabi, is a freshman at the University of Wyoming and has learned to push for what she needs to succeed.
Otterholt recalled one student who met his future wife at one of the competitions. The national academic bowl is held by Gallaudet University, the only college for deaf and hard of hearing students in the world, according to the state Education Department. The school has even started using the academic bowl to recruit.
“At first, they’re so shy,” Otterholt said of deaf and hard of hearing students. “But after they go to academic bowl, you can see these academic bowl kids come together and just instantly, they meld.”
But in the years since the team’s inception, the students have grown more competitive. Four straight national appearances make that clear.
It shines through acutely during Thursday’s final round, when the two teams are given a sheet of paper with 10 questions, all about U.S. presidents. We tied with the students, with both teams correctly answering the same amount of questions. But Gabe challenged his answer to the question of which president was the first to be born outside of the contiguous United States.
The answer was President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii.
Gabe wrote Hamilton, referring to Alexander Hamilton. We adults were completely stumped and wrote nothing.
Fortunately for us, Hamilton was never president, so a red “no” (“sorry”) card for Gabe. But it showed that the team members knew when to challenge and push for answers they firmly think are correct.
Somehow, we managed to squeak out a victory in a three-on-two match facing just one team member. The teams the group will face at nationals won’t be so lucky.