Jennifer Pickrell

YA Writer

He ain't heavy, he's my brother…no really, he's my brother

1 Comment

Brain Awareness Week ( “is the global campaign to increase public awareness about the progress and benefits of brain research.”

In honor of BAW 2010 (March 15-21), I decided to interview the smartest guy I know – my older brother, Shawn Pickrell!

First, the serious questions:

First of all, have you ever heard of Global Brain Awareness Week? 

Nope, I haven’t. (does a quick Wiki lookup, then a Google.) Ooh, specialized research. It’s too advanced for me! I am proud that I taught my daughter where her brain was right around her second birthday.

You’ve been involved with quiz bowl in one form or another for a number of years now.  Can you give a brief rundown of how you got started and how your role has evolved over the years?

Well, I started at good old Warren County High School in 9th grade. Apparently my reputation had preceded me, and the other team members decided I was going to be on the team. They got one of my classmates to remind me of the practice, which I was going to anyway. So I went to play the next week. Luckily, the Handley coach had written all the questions for that match and he was a history teacher, so I helped Warren County win both of the matches.

I kept playing for Warren County in a league called Brainstorming. Freshman year we finished 3rd, sophomore year we finished 2nd, and we won my junior and senior years, although we never did defeat Handley’s top team. My senior year, we had fourteen players, and no one played more than four games, even myself. But we still went 7-1, and our sophomores and juniors could’ve finished second by themselves even. The one loss was of course to Handley.

My junior year, we started going to Saturday tournaments. Warren County went to five of them and won one of them (the Spotswood tournament my senior year); our coach even got us to be on the Virginia Savings Bank message board on Royal and Main. We beat Charlottesville, Spotswood, and R.E. Lee pretty regularly, so I think we’d have made the state tournament if it had been a VHSL activity.

I took a break for a couple years, but then I got a team together for Randolph-Macon College. I didn’t do as well there – finishing above .500 was a success for the R-MC team. After I graduated, I started officiating at tournaments in the DC area. Unfortunately, the team didn’t last after I graduated. I went to George Mason for the 1999-2000 school year, thinking I was going to get a degree in computer science – so naturally, I formed a team there. This team at least lasted a year after I left.

When I got married, I stopped going to George Mason and stopped playing, but I was picked to be the Commissioner of the Virginia High School League’s Scholastic Bowl competition. Basically, I had to write all the questions for district, region, and state play. I started getting some of my friends to help out when the number of questions needed started becoming too big, and I’d have Adam Fine help out several times a year with reading over the questions, double-checking the math, etc. The top teams in Virginia are actually the best in the country – so writing questions for them is like being the main chef at a five-star restaurant.

In 2007-08, I thought I could handle being a dad, writing the VHSL questions, and even writing questions for the Missouri version of the VHSL.

That didn’t work out as well as I thought, so I had to give up Missouri, and as my daughter started getting bigger and sleeping less, I had to give up writing VHSL questions too and resigned as Commissioner before the state tournament.

I was also getting a little burned out from writing so many questions – I’d have to write between 1,000 and 2,000 a year – and it’s not just “What is the capital of Denmark?” That question would just lead to four to eight buzzer lights going on at once, and would be more a test of reflex speed than anything else.

For a good question, you have to mention stuff about neighborhoods in Copenhagen, landmarks like the statue of the Little Mermaid and Tivoli Garden, and then finally, “What is the capital of Denmark?” Then you have to order the clues so the hardest ones are first and then the easiest. This way, the teams that know the most stuff can answer the question, and you can learn more about the answer if you want to. Now, multiply that by 1,500 and you have an idea of what I was doing.

I’ve only missed two VHSL state tournaments out of the 12 we’ve had so far – 2007 for the birth of my daughter and this year, to let the new Commissioner take over the tournament. I’m looking forward to helping at states again next year, though!

Oh, this wasn’t so brief, was it? Well, it’s hard to be brief describing 20 years. 🙂

Tell me about HSAPQ (High School Academic Pyramid Questions: – how it got started and your duties, etc.

Well, it was started by some former high school players who wanted questions that were even more rigorous than what I – and other leading vendors – were writing. We produce several tournaments’ worth of questions a year that are used all over the country. After I resigned as commissioner, HSAPQ was in the market for a new Chief Financial Officer, and I was one of the few people who had experience with both quizbowl and with setting up a business – I had set up my VHSL operation as a full corporation.

I came on as CFO and am now in charge of answering emails from people, collecting payments from tournaments that use HSAPQ’s questions, and sending out checks to writers. I make maybe 5% of what I made doing VHSL, but it’s 10% as much stress and maybe 30% of the work (I still do a lot of emailing and handling phone calls from folks around Virginia that need help organizing their competitions. Mostly it’s athletic directors who want to make sure they’re doing things right – they usually are.)

In my area (rural Virginia), the academic team doesn’t get the same recognition as, say, a sports team – you’ve been to a lot of these tournaments – do they draw large crowds and are there the “die-hard” fans?

It depends on the teams. Some schools will actually bring dozens of people along to the state tournament, and usually get 30-40 people attending the regular season matches. I’ve heard of a few schools in Southwestern Virginia that’ll have over a hundred people attending the matches. For other schools, the total contingent going to states or any competition is actually under ten people, counting the players.

As for recognition – most schools, it seems, will value football, boys’ basketball, and one or two other sports/activities. For a few of those schools, the academic team is that other highly regarded activity.

There have been lots of school funding cuts in all areas in all states – tell me what you think is the importance of keeping these types of programs in school.  To me, it seems like academic teams wouldn’t require a lot of money to keep going – no uniforms, instruments, etc.

I agree that academic teams are fairly low-cost. Buzzer systems cost between $200 and $500 – practice questions can be gotten for free – and even if you get a dozen polo shirts, that’s an extra $200 or so per year. Even if you pay drivers to regular season events for mileage and give out meal money to each player, that’d be $1,500-$2,500 or so a year. Throw in some weekend tournaments, and it’s no more than $5,000 or so for the whole year. Of course, in some cases, districts require (for liability reasons) the team take a school bus to events, and that’ll really increase the cost.

Another problem comes up when administrators are told, “Cut 2% from your budgets.” Most of the time, it seems, administrators will start cutting non-revenue sports (and the academic team is a non-revenue sport-like activity), band, and other things that have a large, dedicated support base. Of course, if the alternative is larger class sizes, a reduced number of class offerings, I suppose it might make some sense to cut band/activities/non-revenue sports.

Now some fun:

What’s the most fun – being a participant, moderator, or question writer?  Or are they all fun or satisfying in their own right?

All are fun.

I’m probably not that good of a player anymore as I haven’t picked up a buzzer in over a decade. I sort of take a perverse pride in that. One of these days, I might see if the local high school (for me, it’s James Madison) could use me as a scrimmage opponent now that I’m not required to be 100% neutral.

I like being a moderator, too – but if I had to list one of them as my least favorite, that’d be it. I read a few matches for George Mason High School’s (in Falls Church) regular season meet, and I was beat after three matches! I don’t know how I managed to read 12-15 matches on a Saturday back in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Question writing is what I’ve done the most of lately – so it’s what I’m used to. I like writing good questions that can judge the knowledge level of both teams. It’s hard sometimes judging what might be easy for me but impossible for high school players – I think in history I often wrote questions that were too difficult for the teams, but some subjects, like science, I wrote questions that were too easy, since I don’t know as much about science.

What is your favorite genre of questions to write, and why?

Well, pop culture, obviously. 🙂 But aside from that, probably social studies, because that’s the area I am best at.

I enjoy doing a few things that the folks at HSAPQ would mock me over – one is ending questions with a pun or other semi-clue (e.g. “sounds like”) in the question that makes the question easier. The problem, though is that you don’t want to write a question that no one’s going to answer before the pun or other semi-clue.

I’ve also enjoyed the occasional journey into silliness, such as writing questions about North Korea in North Korean-style propaganda (e.g. my question on Pyongyang ending “What supreme vanguard on the Taedong River is the great capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?”) or my question about the Oregon Trail that went, “Those going along it needed money to pay the Barlow Road’s toll. Marcus Whitman led 800 people who braved the risk of dysentery, cholera, and exhaustion in 1843. Landmarks along it included Fort Hall, the Kansas River crossing, and the South Pass, and travelers could shoot buffalo and bears for sustenance. Farmers, carpenters, and bankers traveled what route that terminated in the Willamette (wil-ah-met) Valley?” 

Ever consider going on Jeopardy?  I heard that before he became “the” Ken Jennings that you competed against him…how did that go?

I never did play against him. It was at the 1997 national collegiate championship, where Randolph-Macon finished 47rd of 64 teams or something like that. I did finish above Ken in average scoring per game – I was 13th and he was somewhere lower than that. But, he had one of the top ten players in the country as a teammate, and so his team did much much better than Randolph-Macon’s.

How about a random piece of information – maybe something that you were surprised to learn while doing question research.

Taking one match (2008’s state championship match #5):

I learned that Jewel responded to requests for the song “Free Bird” by extending her middle finger.

I learned that Ivan Pavlov (the one with the dogs) had a graduate assistant sit next to him and record Pavlov’s dying experience.

I learned that Elie Wiesel’s charitable foundation lost all its money to Bernie Madoff.

I learned that men occasionally dance en pointe in ballet, like the ones who play Cinderella’s stepsisters.


Author: Jennifer Pickrell

I write YA contemporary filled w/ romance, angst & family drama. Things I like: cats, snacks, baseball, green tea, taking pictures of trees & movies so bad, they’re good.

One thought on “He ain't heavy, he's my brother…no really, he's my brother

  1. This is a proud moment for a mother. To read her children in print! Proud of both of you! Maybe you can interview Davis after he makes the musical at the high school. mom

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