October 3, 2018

PHS Social Studies Teacher Kian Barry Will Compete on “Jeopardy” Thursday

“JEOPARDY” MAVENS: “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek and Princeton High School social studies teacher Kian Barry share a moment on the set during the July taping of a show that will air this Thursday, October 4 at 7 p.m. on ABC. (Photo Courtesy of Kian Barry)

By Donald Gilpin

Watching Jeopardy each evening is a ritual for many, particularly for families who enjoy learning, and showing off and testing their knowledge of just about everything.

This Thursday the local Jeopardy television audience will be especially large, as watch parties of Princeton High School students and recent graduates tune in to see their social studies teacher Kian Barry match wits with two opponents. At 7 p.m. on ABC, Barry will be seen introducing himself to legendary host Alex Trebek, and testing his knowledge of a wide range of trivia.

“Everyone is extremely excited,” said the 32-year-old Hopewell resident. “I didn’t really bring it up at school. I felt a little uncomfortable. I wanted to be a little more modest, but my students found out by a couple of means. They look up their teachers and they find things out.”

He added, “I showed them my picture with Alex Trebek, and the kids are very enthusiastic.”

After successfully completing an online test, a written test, a simulated game, and an interview, Barry, who teaches advanced placement (AP) world history and AP European history at PHS, got the word last June that he’d been chosen to be on the show. He flew out to Los Angeles in July for the taping.

“They tape five episodes a day, so I got to watch episodes before I went on,” he recalled. “Walking onto the set was surreal. The first time you get behind the podium and look out and see the Jeopardy board is an amazing experience.”

Barry had to sign an agreement not to divulge details about the game before Thursday night’s show, but he was eager to talk about the experience in general.

“I thought I’d be way more nervous than I was,” he said. I was most nervous during the interview. That was the most unprepared I was for anything. I stumbled over my words. That’s the first time you ever meet Alex Trebek, due to regulations that were established after cheating scandals came out in the 1950s game shows. You don’t meet Alex until that moment, and you don’t know what he’s going to say.”

He continued, “Other than that, it was so much fun. The hardest part wasn’t recalling details to answer the questions, but rather managing and getting control over the buzzer. Timing the buzzer is the most important part of the game. All of us knew the answers for most of the questions, and we were all trying to buzz in. It’s just whether or not you get the timing right. If you buzz in too early, you’re locked out. And there’s really no way to practice that.”

Early Signs of “Jeopardy” Prowess

“From an early age I liked to memorize things,” said Barry, who grew up in East Brunswick and graduated from Rutgers University. “Maybe it was in second grade memorizing all the presidents or the countries of the world. I had to learn the state capitals in second grade, so I decided to learn all the world capitals and the presidents. I fell in love with that idea of memorizing things. I also liked the stories associated with them, and I liked history. So I built a strong associative memory.”

Barry has been watching Jeopardy for many years. “As a young kid, I remember trying to get in any answers I could, and ultimately trying to be better than my parents. At some point there was not much competition any more. Every day at seven someone would yell and say Jeopardy was on and we would all run in there.”

Barry credits his parents for instilling some of the skills he possesses as a history teacher and Jeopardy expert. His mother, a retired Federal Express service manager, “is very inquisitive and good at memorizing things,” he notes. “She’s the person who always remembers everybody’s half birthday. She contributed a lot to my ability to memorize things, both intentionally and accidentally.”

Barry’s father, a retired golf teaching pro, was a history major. “They really emphasized the importance of learning and knowledge — that there was an inherent value in knowing things.”

Barry observed that his interest in knowing things, in trivia, and in history were all connected. “You start to seek out other kinds of information. So you build this Rolodex in your head,” he said. “I’ve been indiscriminately curious about many different subjects, and that’s what makes someone good at trivia. It’s also what makes a well-rounded and curious person.”

It was this curiosity and thirst for knowing things that led Barry to his chosen career. When he started college he thought he’d eventually go to law school, “but midway through college I realized that law school wasn’t what I really wanted, so I decided to go back to get my teaching degree, and since then I’ve fallen in love with the profession.”

In his third year in the social studies department at PHS after starting out teaching at South Brunswick High School and Chatham High School, Barry, who works primarily with juniors and seniors, stated, “I really love being in the classroom every day. I love the excitement of being able to teach kids who have never heard about the things I’m talking about. I continue to learn a great deal every year. The courses challenge me and the students challenge me.”

He added, “The students have been fantastic. I try to present things in a fun way. The students have responded well, and I feel really at home here.”

Barry, who recently bought a house in Hopewell and is planning to get married next summer, looks forward to his ongoing career in the classroom at PHS. “I really like my job,” he said. “I love where I am and have high hopes I’ll be there for a long time.”

After Thursday night, Jeopardy, except when he watches it weeknights on TV, might not figure prominently in Barry’s future, but knowledge, history, and education will. “I’ll never be on Jeopardy again,” he reflected, “but I really like trivia and I’ll still do the same kinds of things. It’s just who I am.”