ARLINGTON — On one weekend last month, high school students from across the state gathered at Arlington High School, packing the commons area and classrooms, competing to achieve one goal: To see which of them knows the most about everything.
This was the state finals for Knowledge Bowl, a competition that pits teams of students against each other, answering questions about any subject that might be taught in school.
U.S. history, chemistry, literature, geology, world history, geography, math, music, government, physics, foreign languages, theater, biology, social studies… it’s all fair game.
For one Arlington family, it’s also a way of life.
Ben Mendro teaches German at Arlington High School, and also coaches the school’s four Knowledge Bowl teams. His daughter Hannah, 18, and stepson Luke Owen, 18, both seniors at the school, are on the team that made it to state finals. Mendro’s son Nicholas, 15, a freshman, plays on another team.
In addition, Mendro’s nephew, Willy Duguay, who attends Liberty Bell High in Winthrop, was competing at state in the 2B division.
“This weekend is really going to be a family affair,” Mendro said shortly before the tournament.
The contest works like this: Teams of six first take a written test of 50 questions. Then they move to the oral rounds: four rounds of 50 questions each, run in quiz show fashion. The first team to buzz in has 15 seconds to answer. If the answer is incorrect, the second-fastest team gets a chance, and so on. Each correct answer is worth one point.
The top nine teams are then seeded into the semifinals, much in the way NCAA basketball teams are put into a bracket. The semifinal round is another 50 questions.
Instead of elimination rounds, however, the top three scoring teams go into the final round to compete for first, second and third places, while the middle three try for fourth, fifth and sixth, and so on.
Mendro and his co-coach, Jane Joselow, who retired from teaching Spanish last year, have mixed duties during the finals. They provide encouragement for their team between rounds, but otherwise can’t help them.
And because the tournament relies on volunteer labor to run, both Mendro and Joselow are called on to read questions or keep score in other rooms where other teams are competing.
Mendro has been coaching Knowledge Bowl for 20 years, and has learned that the only real way to prepare his team is to give the students packets that contain summaries of great works of literature, lists of scientific terms, important dates in history… anything that might be on a test of general knowledge.
The other thing they can do, which they do often, is drill, drill, drill, running practice test from prior years over and over again.
They even had a teacher-versus-student session at one practice. The teachers won by just one point, Mednro said.
Mendro’s skills as a trivia buff were honed at an early age. In high school, he appeared on the “High School Bowl” program on KHQ-TV in Spokane.
“I just loved looking at my atlas and was really nerdy,” Mendro said.
Trivia and quizzing play a role in the Mendro home as well. They do crosswords and are fans of the Sporcle.com website, which hosts countless quizzes on numerous topics, as well as the QuizUp app for smartphones.
“I’ve been trying to get on Jeopardy for years. I would kill it on Jeopardy, but I’ve never had my name chosen,” he said.
The relentless practice at school prepared the team to handle any kind of question in a high-pressure environment.
That pressure was on display the morning of the state finals. During the written rounds, 606 kids comprising 102 teams huddled around tables packed into the school’s commons area and gymnasium, whispering strategies and answers together.
When the round was over, the kids surged into the halls, heading for classrooms for the first oral rounds.
Arlington’s team, comprising Hannah, Luke, senior Grace McWatters and juniors James Piscioneri (the team captain), Quinn James and Bryce Thomas, faced off against Olympia High School and Gonzaga Preparatory School.
The questions start: geography, grammar (stumping all three teams). Arlington scores its first point when they are asked to identify the profession of a list of characters from literature and film. They buzz in when “Michael Clayton” is mentioned.
“Our answer is ‘Lawyers’,” Piscioneri calls out.
But then sometimes one of the teams jumps the gun, interrupting the questioner and forced to answer an incomplete question: Question: “If our blood were ferromagnetic…” (Buzz)
Piscioneri (after some sheepish conferring with the team): “Our answer is ‘die’.”
Incorrect. The second team asks for the question to be completed: “…people would bleed profusely or explode when suscepted to what common medical practice?”
The answer, it turns out, is “MRI.” And the lesson would seem to be to be sure of the question before trying to answer it.
But none of the teams lets up. Hands are held an inch above the buzzer. One team or another will jump the gun several more times that morning, often sacrificing the point to a more patient competitor.
Arlington ultimately placed 14th, while Olympia High, whom Arlington had faced that morning, won first place.
Hannah Mendro was sanguine at her team’s performance.
“Mostly I’m just really happy we’ve made it” to state finals, she said.
“There is always the feeling that no matter how much you prepare, it’s never enough. That drives us,” she said.
With the season over, the Knowledge Bowl team still meets every Monday because the students still enjoy it, Mendro said.
And while Hannah and Lucas are off to college next year — Hannah to Quest University Canada, Lucas to the University of Washington — Mendro’s youngest, Nicholas, will likely carry the family torch.
“They did very well, they were very competitive, and almost made it into the regionals,” Mendro said of Nicholas’ team.
“I suspect when he’s older he’ll do better than Hannah,” he added.
Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sample Knowledge Bowl questions
Are you smarter than a high school student — at the Knowledge Bowl state finals, that is? These questions were asked during the 2003 Knowledge Bowl state finals.
1. The USS New Jersey saw action during what three wars?
2. The most critical weakness of what act passed in 1890 was its obscure phrasing and its failure to clearly define terms like “trust,” “restraint,” and “combination”?
3. Which story in “The Canterbury Tales” is about a cock that manages to escape from a fox by exploiting the fox’s pride?
4. What British author spent her early life as a confined invalid dominated by her Victorian father on Wimpole Street?
5. What right specified by the First Amendment is violated if a city government refuses to allow a group to gather to protest action of the mayor?
6. What variant of the species Homo sapiens lived throughout Europe between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago?
7. What causes slender tubes of glass called fulgurites to form in dry sand?
1. World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War
2. Sherman Antitrust Act
3. “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”
4. Elizabeth Barrett Browning
5. Right of assembly