High School constitution quiz competition hinges on surprise, spectacle
From the shadowy theater stage of Harvey Auditorium, Jeremy Adams is getting frustrated and muttering under his breath.
There's a lot to stress about. It's just one week until the Earl Warren Cup, a quiz-style competition at Bakersfield High School that has been trumped up into a Las Vegas-style spectacle. More than 30 of BHS' smartest seniors face off in a competition every two years pushing their knowledge of the Constitution, current events and U.S. government to the brink.
The show hinges on surprise. From the superstar politicians who record videos of themselves asking questions of brainy Drillers to the always anticipated introduction, which in the past has included high flying theatrics and Adams cruising onto stage in his minivan. Until the curtain comes up, the entire production is shrouded in mystery.
The student builders who construct the sets aren't even sure of the details, and they're sworn to secrecy for what little they do know. How does Adams, the AP government teacher and architect of the Earl Warren Cup, keep it a secret?
“We tell them that if they leak, they'll never work in this theater again,” said Dale Olvera, BHS' technical director. “We lock the doors.”
Except for today.
There's a group of drama students walking through the set to class, enough to incense Adams, who has spent two years dreaming up an introduction even more outlandish than those in the past.
In the whole world, there are about four or five people who know what's planned for the show, Adams said. Not even his wife knows every last detail. These drama students aren't supposed to be here.
It's not an unwarranted concern, Adams said. As airtight as the production seems, leaks have occurred. Like two years ago when Principal David Reese hung suspended from the ceiling, gliding onto the stage with the Earl Warren Cup trophy to kick off the competition.
Adams makes his way to the auditorium's lobby doors and finds a group of drama students practicing improv on the other side.
“Don't open that door,” Adams tells them before heading to the mezzanine for a better look at the set.
“We know everything that's going on,” one improv student tells Adams as he makes his way up the stairs. “We know everything.”
At this point, Adams isn't sure if he's telling the truth, or just acting.
The Earl Warren Cup's beginnings are humble.
Between classes one day in 2006, Adams caught the excited chatter of a group of students talking about a football game that week and got the idea.
“Wouldn't it be great if these students showed a patina of passion for their country?” Adams asked himself. The Earl Warren Cup was born.
When Adams began the competition a decade ago, he asked for 32 chairs for his students, a podium and a single microphone. About 150 audience members turned out. He compares the energy to something on par with a spelling bee.
“It was 32 kids on stage, questions, answers and you're the winner,” Adams said.
That changed when Congressman Kevin McCarthy caught wind of the event after his son, a BHS freshman at the time, asked to be driven to the Earl Warren Cup. When McCarthy opened the auditorium doors, he found more than 1,000 students in the audience.
“What a great education process. You get thousands of kids who turn out and cheer for the kids who strive to be up there in the competition,” McCarthy said. “This is the equivalent to a sporting event, but for the intelligence of what the strength of the country is.”
Eager to help, McCarthy volunteered to read a question at the next year's competition, but got held up in Washington, D.C., the night of the event, so not wanting to disappoint, he stood at the steps of the Capitol armed with a smartphone and sent the recording to Adams, sparking a tradition.
Since then, McCarthy has rounded up politicians, celebrity journalists, Supreme Court justices and even movie stars to step in front of their smartphones while trying to stump BHS students on all things constitutional. Occasionally, they'll even throw out a Drillers reference.
In the past, McCarthy has wrangled broadcast journalist Katie Couric, first lady Laura Bush, Speaker of the House John Boehner and (a favorite among students,) Kevin Spacey, of the Netflix political drama “House of Cards.”
Anyone who crosses McCarthy's path is fair game. It's now a habit at the end of meetings to ask his colleagues if they have 20 seconds to thrill a Driller with a video. And if McCarthy runs late to a meeting, like he was with one unnamed world leader this year, you can be sure he'll ask him or her to contribute an impromptu quiz question.
“They'll have no idea,” McCarthy said. “But they get excited about it.”
Now the Warren Cup is the campus buzz, with harried students studying in frenzies and rearranging sleeping schedules for the big night. Juniors who see the excitement of seniors taking part in the competition this year hang their heads in jealousy knowing that the event only comes around every other year and that they won't have the chance to take part.
But for the current seniors in Adams' advanced placement government courses, the prospect of hoisting the brass trophy over their heads in victory hardly escapes their minds.
To promote the competition, they've designed T-shirts now slung across cardboard cutouts of President Barack Obama, Teddy Roosevelt and Darth Vader in Adams' classroom. Newspaper clippings from past competitions hang in the entry way. A paper silhouette of a lucky teen wielding the trophy hangs on the whiteboard, serving as the backdrop for Adams' lectures. As if that pressure weren’t enough, the hulking trophy welcomes students as they walk into the room.
For senior Jacob Mata, who is seeded 11th in the competition, the cup is always at the forefront of his mind. He thinks about it while folding clothes at the Calvin Klein outlet where he works weekends and has friends drill him on the names of obscure foreign leaders during lunch hour at school. He stays up until 3 a.m. studying and spends his spare time watching MSNBC, CNN and “The Young Turks,” an Internet news show about politics and pop culture.
While students study and prepare with mock competitions, still looming in the backs of their minds is which celebrity politicians might deliver the questions. But Adams isn’t telling anyone, except hinting that there’s a national broadcast journalist and that at least one of the guests will be from outside the country.
And about the intro? He’s keeping quiet, except to say that it will be worth the cost of admission.
Meanwhile in class on a recent Tuesday, Adams schools his students on the blunders of political candidates, including The Howard Scream – that iconic moment in American politics that many identify as the moment Vermont governor Howard Dean lost the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in 2004 with one wild yelp.
“Imagine spending a fortune on campaigning and everything in your life leads up to this moment and you can't remember one word, you make one slip-up and your political career is over,” Adams told his students.
“The Earl Warren Cup,” one student said.
That's the cup summed up: If you can't remember one word, one answer and make one slip up – one Howard Scream – the show is over. You're out of the competition, ushered into the audience with everyone else.