Something exciting and inspiring happened on Jeopardy! last Wednesday. But unless you were watching, you probably didn’t hear about it. The awesome achievement has been drowned out by something else that occurred on the same episode that is symptomatic of an unfortunately pervasive trend.
But first the good stuff: On the Wednesday Jeopardy! Kid’s Week contest a 7th grader from Kentucky named Skyler Hornback won $66,600. That’s the highest total ever for a kid, and the third highest in the history of any variety of Jeopardy!. What was really impressive is that he wagered $30,000 of his $36,600 on Final Jeopardy, putting his huge lead at risk, confident in his knowledge of the Civil War. Here’s the Final Jeopardy clue:
Abraham Lincoln called this document, which took effect in 1863, “a fit and necessary war measure.”
Yeah, the clues are a little easier for kid’s week, but Skyler was the only one who correctly responded “Emancipation Proclamation.” (You can watch the Final Jeopardy reveals here.)
Well, the Jeopardy judges ruled that he was the only one who was correct. Lots of people apparently believe that another one of the players got it right. Thomas Hurley III, who was in distant second place going into the final but had played the game with infectious enthusiasm, responded to the Final Jeopardy clue with this: “What is the Emanciptation Proclamation.” (If you’re not familiar with Jeopardy, all the responses have to be in the form of a question, and Final Jeopardy is written with all three players facing the same clue.)
Thomas’ response was ruled incorrect. He was visibly upset. Who wouldn’t be? Heck, I got two Final Jeopardy’s wrong in my seven games. It’s no fun to stand there and have the entire world, at least the 9 million or so that watch Jeopardy!, be told you’re wrong. And Thomas thought he had the right answer. It was close. He probably knew it, and just had a mental hiccup trying to spell such a long word in a pressure situation. So I don’t blame him for being miffed.
(If anyone is to “blame” here for this situation besides Thomas’ misspelling it is the usually excellent Jeopardy! clue writers; to expect kids to remember and write out such long words under tremendous pressure was probably asking for trouble.)
Thomas’ body language at the end of the show when contestants talk to Alex Trebek on camera as the credits roll also belies his disgust. Again, I know what it’s like to lose on Jeopardy!. I did it three times (my fifth “regular” game plus the Tournament of Champions Quarterfinal that I lost well enough to earn a wildcard into the Semifinal that I also lost). It’s tough to fail so publicly. Especially when you’re in Middle School and every emotion gets amplified by 1000. So it’s no surprise his disappointment would be obvious.
But . . . the game was taped in February. It’s six months later and it’s finally aired. That seems plenty of time for the adults in Thomas’ life to help him get over the glitches and to help him celebrate the fact that he beat some very long odds to get on Jeopardy!, and actually do quite well. But no . . . articles are popping up all over the internet, even internationally, quoting Thomas saying he was “cheated.”
That’s a shame. Thomas’ resentment is overshadowing his own fine performance in the game and especially Skyler’s achievement. It is often lazy and incorrect to blame “the media,” but it is “the media” that is spreading this misinformed story. The allegation that Thomas was “cheated” is just plain wrong.
First, Thomas wasn’t cheated out of anything. He went into Final Jeopardy with 9600 to Skyler’s 36,000. So even if he had been ruled correct, he would still have finished second and won the same $2000 consolation prize he received anyway. (The third place kid was well behind Thomas.)
Second, Jeopardy! has been consistent about spelling in the Final round. You don’t have to spell your response exactly right, but it must be phonetically the same as the correct response. So I guess Thomas could have put “immansupashun” and been ruled correct. But “Emmanciptation” changes the pronunciation. This is not new – some Final Jeopardy responses that have been ruled incorrect in the past include “Vilnuis” for “Vilnius” (the capital of Lithuania) and “Bejamin Franklin” for, of course, Benjamin Franklin.
This rule is explained in the briefing contestants get before taping. Again, I understand Thomas being upset and disappointed at the time. But six months is a long time to carry around the (erroneous) feeling that he was cheated. It is certainly beyond the point where one should be complaining to the media. How about just congratulating Skyler on his performance and maybe even laughing about that extra “t.”
But since Thomas is just barely a teen, isn’t it the responsibility of the adults in his life to teach him to deal with defeat in a way that evidences character? Isn’t that what character is at its root, responding to life’s inevitable disappointments with grace and maybe a sense of humor?
I don’t want to be too hard on those adults around Thomas, though. I understand the impulse to be protective of a kid you care about. I’m sure they are fine folks, or Thomas never would have had the skill and gumption to get on Jeopardy! in the first place!
I am more concerned about this as a symptom of a societal problem, the tendency to point fingers outward rather than look in the mirror when we fall short. And, yes, “the media’s” tendency to indulge such behavior.
Acknowledging our own responsibility for our missteps is not just the right thing to do, it is the healthy thing to do. We can only learn from failure if we accept our part in it. It is only by admitting our complicity that we can achieve what Ralph Waldo Emerson called, “Our Greatest Glory:”
Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.
An author with whom Thomas may be more familiar, J. K. Rowling, said this about failing:
It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might has well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.
I certainly applaud Thomas for taking the risk of striving to be on Jeopardy!, and of achieving his goal. It takes guts to put yourself out there in front of millions of people. I certainly hope that Thomas will get to the point of being able to look back on the fun I’m sure he had participating in Kid’s Jeopardy!. That is probably only possible by letting go of the feeling he was “cheated.”
And all you enablers who are posting in the comment threads of those articles about Thomas, and on the Jeopardy! Facebook page and the Jeopardy Message Board, just stop! Find a real injustice to put your pique and verbosity toward.
“Alex Trebek is a jerk,” many of you say. The fact is that Alex Trebek doesn’t make decisions about what responses are right or wrong – there are judges who let him know the rulings.
“Jeopardy has always accepted misspellings,” has also been often put forward by the affronted commentators. Yes it has, but not when they change the pronunciation of the word. (It’s fun to see how many of these incensed posts contain their own misspellings, often of the word “misspelling.”)
“I’ll never watch Jeopardy again” is the final word for many of these outraged netizens. I don’t really care if you do or you don’t. There’s millions more who will.
But I am sad to read that Thomas says he won’t watch Jeopardy! again. I hope one day he will see the wisdom in what Winston Churchill said:
Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.
That’s something for all of us to remember. Failure is a reality, over and over again, even daily if we are really living. The key is not losing our enthusiasm for life and for risk and for trying new things. Like Skyler . . . and Thomas . . . did when they decided to try out for Kids Jeopardy! in the first place.
And like the adults in their lives did when they encouraged them to go for it.