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SRM librarian Alana Lewis competes on 'Jeopardy!'

Published on Thursday, April 1

ken jennings and alana lewis

Clue: “Neil Simon wrote some ‘memoirs’ about this beach neighborhood next door to Coney Island.”

Answer: “What is Brighton Beach?”

It may not be a tidbit known to many, but it was the first question that Sangaree Middle’s librarian, Alana Lewis, answered on Wednesday night’s episode of “Jeopardy!”.

Lewis, who went by her nickname “Loni” in the episode,” is in her second year at Sangaree Middle, and previously worked in Charleston County School District. She is a longtime “Jeopardy!” fan, a competent trivia player and a self-proclaimed “nerd” who enjoys her daily crossword puzzle and reads more than 200 books a year.

It took a lot of patience and perseverance and while she unfortunately did not come out on top in the overall game (she took second place to 11-time returning champion Mattea Roach, a tutor from Toronto), landing a spot on the show has always been a longtime bucket list item for Lewis. (Watch episode on YouTube).

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, so it was an exciting one to check off,” she said.

As an avid fan of the show, Lewis has tried for a long time to land a spot as a contestant. To get on the show, potential contestants must first take a 50-question test. This exam is administered online periodically, as well as being offered at regional contestant search events; Lewis has taken both in-person and online tests over the years.

After completing her most recent test, Lewis received a follow-up message asking her to take another 50-question test in a Zoom room. After that second test, she was invited to participate in an audition via Zoom last summer; she and nine other people basically participated in a sample game to make sure they understood the rules of “Jeopardy!”, like demonstrating how to give an answer in the form of a question and then immediately choose another category to keep the game going.

Lewis also got interviewed during that Zoom audition; potential contestants were asked questions about their occupations, their pastimes and, of course, why they wanted to be on the show. Lewis recalled that when she heard the other interviewees give their answers, she heard a lot of answers like “I like to travel” and “I like to read books.”

Needless to say, Lewis likes books because she is a librarian, so she told officials that yes, she likes to read in her free time – but she is also a DJ for events like weddings and proms, which ended up being talked about on the show.alana lewis

In January, six months after the audition process, Lewis got the call; she was selected as a contestant, and needed to report to Culver City, California, three weeks out.

Lewis said she has watched “Jeopardy!” for as long as she can remember; she was heartbroken when the game show’s longtime host, Alex Trebek, passed away in 2020, describing it as the hardest celebrity death she has ever had to process.

“I processed it like a family member had passed,” she said.

Since Trebek’s passing, the show has rotated through new hosts, and Lewis’s episode was hosted by Ken Jennings, who holds the record for the longest winning streak on “Jeopardy!” with 74 consecutive wins. His total earnings on the show were $4,522,700. Jennings shares host duties with actress Mayim Bialik.

Lewis said she was nervous at first about meeting Jennings, but believes Jennings, having worked with Trebek so much, “brought that vibe” to the set, and that Trebek’s presence was still there.

Returning from a commercial break during the episode, Jennings chatted a bit with the contestants, and asked Lewis about her side hustle as a DJ; Lewis said it is something she actually started doing before she became a librarian.

“He was super nice,” Lewis said, adding, “He was super kind, funny…He’s played the game so much that I feel like he ‘gets it.’”

Lewis also shared some fun behind-the-scenes stuff, like how the contestants stand on risers behind their podiums in order to be the same height. Production also films five episodes a day, but because California has strict COVID protocols in place, the show is currently not being filmed in front of a live audience, so the other contestants served as the audience.

Production took care of make-up for the contestants, and the participants have to follow a strict dress code (Lewis joked that she learned she likes “too much pattern in my life”). Contestants typically wear business attire on the show; they had to bring about five different outfits, in case they win the first episode and have to keep changing clothes for any following episodes they film.

Lewis said the only downside she experienced was not being able to bring anyone with her because of COVID restrictions, but she received a lot of support from her Sangaree school family as well; ever since being on the show she has repeatedly been asked about whether or not she won, or when the episode would air.

“The kids have been really excited about it,” she said.

Lewis said her episode (and other contestants on the show agreed) was very challenging.

“I had, literally, the hardest episode ever,” she said.

In addition to the first question she got right, Lewis knew that the adductor muscles are inner muscles in the body part known as the thighs; that Jamie Lee Curtis starred in “Halloween Kills”; that Taco Bell initially branded the “Fourth Meal” as a “between dinner and breakfast” meal; and that singer Celia Cruz hails from Cuba, among a few other answers.

By the end of the episode, Lewis’s earnings amounted to -$600, putting her in second place. Second-place winners on the show receive a $2,000 check.

However, undeterred, Lewis had big plans for the night her episode aired, including a viewing party with family and friends. Lewis did not want her students to miss out on the fun, so earlier in the day she did a Smartboard-version of “Jeopardy!”. Lewis is also a board member of the South Carolina Association of School Librarians, and fellow members planned to show their support by hosting an online pre-party with library and Lewis-themed trivia.

April happens to be National School Library Month, a time to honor school librarians and the essential role they play in students’ education. There is a lot Lewis wants her students to get out of seeing her land a spot on “Jeopardy!”, like the perseverance and patience it took to finally be named a contestant, and that knowledge is, in fact, cool.

“They were all really surprised and like, ‘Well, is there a book that you study when you get on there?’” she said. “I told them, no…I read, and so that’s how I study.

“It’s just knowing things, and reading widely, is the way to be good at that,” she added.

Lewis said she also learned that “Jeopardy!” has had a lot of librarians on the show recently.

“I don’t think any career has a particular advantage over another (on the show), but I think that’s definitely an advantage that we have – it’s that we read,” she said.

As for Lewis’s next venture?

“’Wheel of Fortune’…I might do that,” she said.

 

 

 

Monica Kreber
kreberm@bcsdschools.net