Future Reflections                                                               Convention Report 2005

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Braille, Motivation, and Useless Trivia: How I Got on Jeopardy

by Kerri Regan

Kerri Regan
Kerri Regan poses, with buzzer in hand, for a snapshot before the Jeopardy game begins.

Editor’s Note: Kerri Regan gave this lively address to a packed house on Monday, July 4, 2005, at the Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky. The occasion was the 2005 Annual Meeting of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. Like the other NFB affiliated divisions, the NOPBC meets during the week of the NFB Convention. The NOPBC meeting has gained a reputation for being fast-paced, informative, and charged with energy. We have an unbeatable formula for this well-deserved reputation: we keep our business meeting short and to the point, and we have two standard program items that never fail to please, delight, and inspire the audience. Those program items are an address from that year’s Distinguished Educator of Blind Children award winner, and a presentation from a blind child or youth. As you may have guessed, Kerri was the 2005 youth speaker, and this is what she said:

Good afternoon everyone. My name is Kerri Regan. I’m from New York, and have recently graduated high school, with plans to attend Manhattanville College in the fall. However, I’m not here this afternoon to talk to you about that. I’m here to speak about a very exciting recent experience. In October of last year, I participated in the Jeopardy Teen Tournament. I answered questions from various categories, some of them rather difficult, in front of a live studio
audience. The program was recorded and later broadcast on national television.

You might ask, “How’d you get on Jeopardy? Don’t you have to be a complete genius to be on that show?” Well, I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m no genius. My math skills are pretty poor to say the least and I don’t know anything about great scientists or opera. As for getting on Jeopardy, I used the skills that have made me a successful blind person: Braille and motivation. Just add in useless trivia, mix well, and you have a Jeopardy contestant.

I credit most of my Jeopardy success to my parents. From the beginning, they’ve always motivated me to do my best and reach for the sky, to follow my dreams; they were convinced that I could do anything I set my mind to do. I was their first child, and was born totally blind, but they decided not to let my blindness get in the way of me leading a normal life. My blindness was similar to my brother’s freckles or Dad’s being tall, a characteristic that made me unique but wasn’t really a big deal. They told me I was just like everyone else, and that was probably the greatest motivation I ever received. I was never treated differently, but was expected to do everything kids my age did, from taking tap dancing classes to joining Girl Scouts to making the bed and clearing out the dishwasher. I grew up with this attitude and it really made a difference in my life. It was one of the factors that led me to Jeopardy.

I’d always been a Jeopardy fan. I loved to watch the show with my family and answer the questions before the contestants did, then yell at the TV if one of them got an easy one wrong. One day, while I watched the show with my aunt and grandmother, they told me “Kerri, you’re getting a lot of these questions right. You should be on Jeopardy.”

About two years later, my dad said the same thing. “You should be on Jeopardy,” he told me as we watched the show and I answered the questions.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I don’t even know how you get on the program. And besides, do you really think they’d pick me?”

“Well you could give it a try and see what happens.” Dad replied. We then saw an advertisement about Jeopardy people coming to New York to search out contestants for their kid and teen tournaments. Dad signed me up, and a few weeks later we received an email asking me to come to New York City in the middle of June to be tested for Jeopardy. In order to be considered for a contestant slot on the show, you have to take a fifty-question test on all sorts of random stuff, from technology to world history. I was one of the top nine candidates from the New York tryouts, and a few months later I received a phone call.

It was the Jeopardy people. I had been selected to be a contestant in the 2005 Teen Tournament.

It was a very exciting month leading up to the filming of the show. We planned our trip to Los Angeles, and I prepared by watching Jeopardy every night and doing a lot of reading. I don’t think I ever would have made it on Jeopardy if it were not for my knowledge of Braille. I learned Braille when I was three, and for most of my life, I’ve read anything I could get my fingers on. There is nothing like sitting in the backyard on a beautiful day with a huge Braille book in your lap for you to enjoy. Moving your fingers speedily across a Brailled page in a textbook is so much easier than rewinding and fast-forwarding a tape to find the chapter or pages you’ve been assigned. Of course, sometimes you can’t get your textbooks in Braille and have to rely on tapes and readers to get your work done. There is nothing wrong with that, a person can be more independent this way. But when it comes to convenience and pleasure, I prefer Braille. It’s more portable than a tape player, and you can mark your place or turn right to the page you want.

Braille has proved to be an important asset in my education and my life. It also came in handy on Jeopardy. When the Jeopardy people asked if I needed accommodations because of my blindness, I told them that I really only needed a Braille card with the names of the categories on it. I also received my final Jeopardy question in Braille and typed my answer out with a BrailleNote. So, Braille proved helpful there as well.

I’ve already discussed how Braille and motivation played a major role in my becoming a Jeopardy contestant, but there is one more ingredient I can’t overlook: useless trivia. According to Jeopardy champion and record-holder Ken Jennings, there’s no such thing as useless trivia. Any fact or figure, no matter how random, can be helpful when you least expect it. I agree with him. As an example, I credit my years of listening to New York traffic reports with helping me answer the one Daily Double question I managed to find. The answer was “A traffic term that also means a cutting utensil.” As I quickly tried to think of an answer, it hit me: jackknife. I’d heard all my life about a tractor-trailer being jackknifed on the West Side Highway, causing delays galore for busy commuters. “What is jackknife?” I asked, and Alex Trebek said I was right.

See what I’m getting at? The most random and seemingly useless facts could help you one day. Listen well to everything going on around you, read any book you can find, and soak up information like a sponge. Who knows when you might need to know who the president of Pakistan is, or the capitals of Caribbean countries. All the little tidbits you pick up in class or on the back of a Snapple cap could come in handy one day. And when a traffic report comes on the radio, don’t change the station.

As parents, you might be sitting there thinking, “Wow! She was on Jeopardy. That’s so cool. I wonder if my child could do something like that.” My answer to that is a resounding yes. Your child can do anything he or she puts his or her mind to do. You probably know already that blindness is no obstacle to achieving one’s goals and dreams. What is my advice to you? Encourage your children. Let them know that you love them and will support them in any endeavor. Tell them that they can succeed in anything if they just give it a try. Whether your child is totally blind or still has some vision, consider having them learn Braille. Yes, learning which dots go where and pressing down on the keys of an old Perkins Brailler may be frustrating sometimes, but encourage them to keep on going. Instill a love of reading in your child. Sharing a story together could be a very enjoyable activity for both of you. And finally, encourage your child to listen and learn. And not just in the classroom, either. A child can learn so much just by helping you around the house, by going to the grocery store to help pick out fruits and vegetables, or climbing a ladder onto the roof to remove pinecones from the gutters. Any scrap of information, no matter how small, could prove useful someday later in life. And who knows? Maybe one day your son or daughter will be standing up on that stage in L.A. telling Alex Trebeque that they’ll take Teens in History for $800.

For more information about Kerri’s experience on Jeopardy, google “Kerri Regan” and select OPAL Podcast, May 2005.

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