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Monkton teacher competes on Jeopardy!

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Posted on February 12, 2015 |
By Zach Despart



Kate_La_Riviere-Gagner_AD_02-06-15_SN_7000.jpg
KATE LA RIVIERE-GAGNER of Starksboro recently fulfilled a lifelong dream to appear on "Jeopardy!" with host Alex Trebek

MONKTON — Most Vermonters would be perplexed to see Culver City, Calif., appear on their caller ID. But when that happened to Monkton Central School teacher Kate La Riviere-Gagner this past fall, she had a hunch who might be on the line.

“I was in my classroom standing by the window and my heart jumped,” La Riviere-Gagner said.

As she suspected, it was a producer from “Jeopardy!” informing her to book a flight to Los Angeles, because she’d been selected as a contestant on the popular TV game show.

La Riviere-Gagner said it was a lifelong dream to appear on the show, which she has been watching as long as she can remember.

“The show has been on for 30 years, and I’m 35, so do the math,” she said.

While she was an undergraduate at George Mason University in Virginia, La Riviere-Gagner said she’d call her mother and they’d watch the show together, trying to answer as many clues as possible.

The Starksboro resident is in her second year as a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Monkton Central, and previously taught in Hinesburg.

Would-be contestants face a long process to even appear on the show. First, applicants take an online test and if they score high enough are invited to regional tryouts, which include mock games and personal interviews.

La Riviere-Gagner was invited New York City in 2013 to audition, and producers told her she qualified for seasons 30 and 31 (last year and this year) of the show.

“When I told the producer I was a teacher, she said ‘We’ll put you in the teachers’ tournament, too,’” she said.

That turned out to be her golden ticket, as producers selected her for the annual teachers’ tournament this fall. She flew with her husband, Andy Gagner, to Los Angeles in December, where the show is taped.

In her first match, in the quarterfinals, La Riviere-Gagner trailed the leader by $8,000 heading into Final Jeopardy. She bet all of her $9,000 on the category, “Shakespeare.” The question — or answer, because on “Jeopardy!” contestants get the answer and then have to provide the question — prompted competitors to name the country where most of the Bard’s plays were set, not including England.

La Riviere-Gagner knew the answer was Italy, but so did the leader. He bet just enough to account for her correct answer, and won by a dollar.

But her impressive second-place finish meant that she wasn’t flying back to Vermont just yet. For the semi-finals, the show needed nine contestants. Five were winners of the week’s games, and the remaining four were the runners up with the highest scores. La Riviere-Gagner’s $18,000 from the first game was among the highest scores, and she qualified for the next round.

In the semi-final of the teachers’ tournament, which aired on TV on Tuesday, Final Jeopardy tripped her up. Confident in the category, “Broadway Musicals,” she placed a large wager. But for the clue, which asked contestants to identify the musical which won a Grammy award, La Riviere-Gagner wrote “Rock of Ages” instead of the correct answer, “Jersey Boys,” and was eliminated from the tournament.

Despite the loss, La Riviere-Gagner still headed back home with $10,000 in prize money. Aside from the cash, she said appearing on the show was an amazing experience.

The show tapes only two days a week, but that means those shooting days are packed with games. She said it was tense to wait for her game, because the contestants are sequestered and cannot use phones or computers.

“If you weren’t playing, all you could do was sit and wait,” she said.

The competition aside, La Riviere-Gagner described the show’s staff as warm and friendly.

“Everyone who worked for the show, they’re some of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” she said. “They kept everything really light, and a lot of fun.”

La Riviere-Gagner said she was glad to meet other teachers from around the country who shared her passion for knowledge.

“For all of us 15 big nerds, this was our watershed moment,” she said.

As for the show’s beloved and often-caricatured host, Alex Trebek, La Riviere-Gagner said he was both gracious and witty.

“Trebek is quite a character,” she said, recounting how a fellow contestant aptly described the sometimes-mustachioed host as a “self-aware curmudgeon, like an uncle or grandfather.”

LA RIVIERE-GAGNER'S SIXTH-GRADE math students are seen here with the "Jeopardy!" contestant. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

“JEOPARDY!” FEVER

In the months between her taping and when the shows aired this week, La Riviere-Gagner said the students and staff at Monkton Central School came down with a bout of “Jeopardy!” fever.

She introduced a “clue of the day” into her class’ morning message, and her students watched her game when it was uploaded to YouTube.

She said that while the show’s difficult questions and rapid-fire pace make it challenging for children and average-minded adults to follow, it still taught her students how to improve their analytical skills.

“It’s about finding the hints within the clue, using their smarts and that kind of stuff that’s not so tricky once you take it apart,” La Riviere-Gagner said.

As for her close semi-final loss, La Riviere-Gagner said her students were supportive — one third-grader even suspected that the victor had “copied from her paper” in Final Jeopardy.

She said she hopes her appearance on the show encouraged students to take risks, even when they may fail.

“It’s learning how the world works when you put yourself out there,” La Riviere-Gagner said. “Some things go your way and sometimes they don’t.”

Remarkably, La Riviere-Gagner is the third person with Addison County ties to appear on the popular game show in the past year. Middlebury College sophomore Erika Sloan competed in the college tournament in February 2014, while Mount Abraham Union High School alumnus Dan Eling competed in December.

La Riviere-Gagner said she’s proud to belong to a very select group of people that have appeared on “Jeopardy!”, which has embedded itself in American culture since its debut in 1964, and revived in its latest incarnation in 1984.

“If I could wear a shirt that said I was on ‘Jeopardy!’ the rest of my life, I totally would,” she said. “It’s so many things, this acknowledgement of my lifelong dream, the idea that I went after it and got it.”

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