Matt Jackson, GDS Class of 2010

The Many Faces of Excellence

A few Saturday mornings a year, my kids and I drive to 4001 Nebraska Avenue, NW. GDS has had seven different homes since our founding in 1945, and 4001 Nebraska was our second home, the “Grasslands” campus, where from 1946–1954 Hoppers learned and frolicked.

Perhaps you are imagining a “Mr. Chips” image of the Head of School dragging his kids on Saturday mornings to the various homes of GDS, paying tribute to each chapter of the School’s past. While poetic, that’s not the story this time.

4001 Nebraska Avenue is now the home of our local NBC news station. And Saturday morning is when It’s Academic is filmed, the world’s longest running television quiz show (according to Guinness), which pits local high school teams against each other in trivia contests. The show’s website includes an extensive list of prominent alumni, including Hillary Clinton, Charles Schumer, Donald Graham, George Stephanopoulos, and “best selling author Josh Foer” (GDS Class of 2000).

Attendance at It’s Academic shows is free and the tapings are great fun. When GDS competes, our mascot the Hopper will often make an appearance, and GDS legends past (Lily Gasperetti, Noah Cowan, Ned Sanger) and present (Tajin Rogers, Abe Atwood, and Zander Bhatia) are usually quite competitive. If you haven’t yet made it to a taping, I highly recommend it.

GDS’s success in It’s Academic is no fluke, and grew in tandem with longstanding success in Quiz Bowl, a national non-televised trivia competition. And it was as a Quiz Bowl competitor that Matt Jackson, GDS Class of 2010, first made his mark as an impressive trivia buff.

For those of you who haven’t been watching television (or the internet, for that matter), Matt gained a national following over the past three weeks for his dominance on Jeopardy! (not the longest running television quiz show, but certainly the most famous). Matt was victorious in 13 consecutive Jeopardy! matches, becoming the fourth “winningest” Jeopardy! contestant of all time, winning more than $400,000. He’ll be back in November for Jeopardy!’s the Tournament of Champions.

Matt became something of a cult hero, not just because he dominated the competition (and he did dominate the competition—Caleb and I watched him win his 12th game. He appeared to be playing against himself, as he was nearly $28,000 ahead of his nearest competitor heading into Final Jeopardy). His slow-appearing smile and moments of celebration (such as the famous “Boom!” in his fourth game) have become the subjects of massive online discussion, celebration, and imitation.

I’d like to claim that GDS deserves sole credit for Matt’s Jeopardy success—but of course this is not the case. The origins of Matt’s success include epic hard work and a wealth of natural talent. I do believe, however, that GDS had a role to play in helping to recognize and nurture Matt’s talent, as this is what our teachers work to do with all of our students. With a mission that calls us to “honor the integrity and worth of each individual” and to “challenge the intellectual, creative and physical abilities of our students,” we are charged with locating and nurturing each student’s individual genius.

This process of location presumes that there is genius to be found, and requires a deep belief in each child’s capacity, recognizing that their talent and excellence will emerge in myriad ways on unpredictable timelines both during and after the child’s time at GDS. While Matt’s love of trivia may have been nurtured and shaped by long-time Quiz Bowl moderator Sue Ikenberry, his classmates may have discovered an area of passion through another adult—an adult who believed in their capacity to excel.

The miracle and power of this belief system is that it leaves room for each child to evolve into his or her truest and fullest self, within a common framework of high expectations and excellence.

And what does this excellence look like? It looks like a vividly described “small moment” in a first grade short story, or a third grader’s carefully designed tin-punch lantern at Turkey Run. It looks like an 8th grader’s powerfully articulated constitutional argument for Hill Day or a beautifully crafted set for a High School show. Our GDS faculty know that their job is to tap into the unique genius of each of our students and to help it to emerge. If that genius is an encyclopedic knowledge of trivia and lightening-quick processing speeds, so be it.

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