By Chris Teale (Courtesy photo)
West Potomac High School has earned more national acclaim over the past two weeks, but in a slightly different way than normal, as 10th and 12th grade English teacher Colin O’Grady shot to prominence on the “Jeopardy!” Teachers’ Tournament and reached the semi-finals.
In December, he was lucky enough to be one of just 15 teachers from across the country selected for the tournament after a rigorous audition process. O’Grady then flew to Los Angeles, where he dominated the competition before bowing out before he could have a shot at the championship and its $100,000 cash prize.
The entire tournament was taped in mid-December over the course of two days as each show takes 25 minutes to be recorded and only its audio is occasionally edited later.
O’Grady has been teaching in Fairfax County Public Schools since 2005 alongside his wife, and says that he did very little studying before picking up his buzzer on set due to his obligations both as a teacher and a parent of a young daughter.
“I didn’t study at all, actually, and I think that’s the function of the amount of time that I had,” he said. “I didn’t want to sacrifice any of the time that I did have with my family. There’s so many things that they can ask about, so you study something and it might be time well spent and it might not be, so I just decided that I knew what I knew. I read a lot, I look stuff up, I’m just curious by nature.
“The one thing I did work on a lot was wagering strategy. I’m not a math person, and there are a couple of blogs out there that are incredible at breaking down wagering strategy both for Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy. I studied that a lot because I wanted to know going into Final Jeopardy if there was an edge and it was close, I wanted to be able to have that edge. Ultimately it didn’t turn out to matter.”
O’Grady said that while it was a little awkward at first between the 15 educators on the show, they all bonded over their two shared passions: teaching and trivia.
“The dynamic among the teachers is incredible, we all have that passion in common,” he said. “The best part of the whole thing was the way everybody rooted for each other. There was no sense of competition really, even though we were competing, there was no sense of people being upset that they lost.
“It was so communal. There was no sense of worrying about losing; there was no sense of trying to beat anybody. Everybody was rooting for everybody all the time. It was a really special dynamic.”
Staff and students at West Potomac have been very supportive of O’Grady throughout the entire process, while his family descended on Los Angeles from all over the country to cheer him on.
“The school’s been really supportive, my colleagues have been all getting together to watch it, students have been watching it, I’ve had a lot of kids that I don’t even know in the hallways saying congratulations and wishing me luck,” he said. “They showed it during the day for a couple of days after it popped up on YouTube so kids could watch it.
“My sister came from Texas, my brother lives in Bethesda and came out. My parents drove up to be there and my best friend drove from Arizona. They all knew and had to keep it a secret, which I think was tougher for them than it was for me because I have financial reasons to keep it a secret. I’ve heard from a little girl I used to babysit when I was 10, old neighbors I haven’t heard from in 10 or 15 years.”
And what of Alex Trebek, the host of “Jeopardy!” since 1984 and something of a living television legend? O’Grady and his peers were still left to ponder what he is really like off-camera, as their only contact with him was on stage during filming.
“The funny thing is, the only contact we have with Alex Trebek is on that stage, and it’s only when they’re actually taping,” he said. “What you saw on television is the extent of my interaction with him, there was none other than that. I didn’t know that going in. You never see him outside of that stage, he comes out from behind that stage, I don’t know what’s behind it. He might be a robot that they keep in a closet, I’m not really sure.
“He’s just this cultural icon that makes witty jokes when you miss something. I was very happy that I screwed something up because I wanted to be made fun of; I think that’s a ‘Jeopardy!’ rite of passage. My sense of Trebek is the same as it was before. He’s this mysterious legend.”
For O’Grady, the chance to appear on one of his favorite shows is something that will live with him forever, especially since it came as part of a celebration of the work that teachers do across the country.
“The way it brought all the teachers together, we’ve stayed in touch through social media from all over the country, it’s easy to call those teachers friends now,” he said. “The last two weeks have been wonderful, because we’ve all been rooting for each other and publicizing each other’s episodes and not just our own, and that sense of positivity and community is something that feels so good.
“Anytime you go from an experience that shows you that side of humanity, even if it’s something as nerdy as a trivia show, that stays with you. Teaching is my whole life, and it’s been nice to have people looking at teachers and saying that these people are wonderful, it’s a nice way of celebrating the profession, and that feels best of all.”