Hollandale native and Simmons High School teacher Ivory Johnson will be making his debut as a contestant in the 2020 JEOPARDY! Teachers Tournament this week.
The competition is an all-new special event, which will feature 15 K-12 instructors competing for a $100,000 grand prize and an opportunity to participate in the next edition of the Tournament of Champions.
Johnson recalled the day he found out he had been selected to actually compete in the tournament and his initial reaction.
It just so happened he received the call during class and his phone was set to “Do Not Disturb,” automatically forwarding the call to voicemail.
“But if called twice within two to three minutes, the phone will actually ring a few times,” he said.
Johnson said as his phone rang, he saw that it was a California number and didn’t recognize it.
“So I think it’s a bill collector and I’m about to lose my temper,” he jokingly said. “So I answer and I’m just building up to yell in front of my class because it would not stop ringing and it’s JEOPARDY!”
He still laughs every time he thinks about the fact JEOPARDY! was the call he was so annoyed with.
“I asked him (a JEOPARDY! producer) to call me back and he called me back later that evening and he started off with, ‘Just wanted to make sure that all your information is still correct,’ and I’m thinking this is just a routine call,” Johnson said. “And then he goes, ‘Oh by the way, you’ve been selected for the tournament.’”
Johnson said the first time the producer said it, it didn’t quite set in.
“As he was talking, I realized more and more that I wasn’t being pranked,” he said.
Even after the producer went over the itinerary and explained everything, Johnson said the producer affirmed, “Once again, this is ‘the call’ and you’re in the tournament.”
“And so that’s when it started to get real and it didn’t actually feel real until I did the request for time off and it got approved,” Johnson said. “It started off unbelievable, then it became real and then it became surreal. It was just a wonderful experience.”
Johnson’s journey to the Jeopardy! Tourney began like normally – he registered for the online test which, at the time, was only offered twice a year. Now, it’s available to take anytime.
He said the test consisted of 40 or 50 questions and as the questions appear, the participant types the answer.
The results are then submitted and potential contestants are asked to come for an audition.
“I went to Houston in September and did a one day audition (another test) where they flash the questions up on screen. They told us we were previewing test questions for future tests so we took that test, handed in our results and they scored it,” Johnson said.
Once everyone was screen tested, the judges took notes on who would be eligible for the tournament and asked questions such as, “Who is currently an undergraduate student?” and “Who is currently a K-12 teacher?”
Out of 90,000 people, Johnson ended being one of 15 selected for the tournament.
He traveled to Los Angeles to film at the JEOPARDY! Studio in Culver City, California, from Feb. 24-25.
Johnson said he and his fellow contestants all got along extremely well because of what they all had in common.
“We were all teachers, we were all big fans of the show and had been big fans of the show for a very long time. We were all really happy to get in when we did,” Johnson said. “That kind of loomed over us – that we might’ve gotten in at the last possible minute.”
“So we made the most of that opportunity and it was fun to be in such a competitive and supportive environment. We all wanted to win, but more than anything else we wanted to get to know each other,” he said.
Outside of the competition, Johnson said he and fellow JEOPARDY! contestants hung out, did bar trivia the night before flying out, done zoom calls and have stayed in touch.
He described his blossoming relationship with his former opponents as that of a pledge class.
“It honestly feels like this is our pledge class, and now, we’re in this fraternity and the only people who understand exactly what we felt are people that have gone through it,” he said. “So now we have this thing in common, this really really rare thing, and it feels good to know that I was a part of it, but I could not have been happier to have done that with the people I did it with, they were awesome.”
Johnson’s students were especially curious about his experience and he said it was fun to answer their questions about it.
“One of my big things is broadening their horizons because being from Hollandale, it’s kind of like growing up in a fish bowl. So I find it rewarding to help them build connections to their place in such a large world,” Johnson said. “It was fun to be able to describe new experiences and hopefully it will maybe push one of my students to want to be on JEOPARDY! And go to L.A.”
The show is set to air at noon on Monday and run through June 5. Johnson will be featured in Monday’s episode.