Students challenge their vocabs in CSC

Students challenge their vocabs in CSC

With area high school students awaiting their shot at the National Vocabulary Championship Monday, Room 444 of the Curry Student Center resembled a high school cafeteria.

The best word to describe this scene? Cacophony.

Some students sat text messaging, while others gathered in groups to chatter about how much homework they had and to assess their chances.

There was less than a half-hour before the chance to appear on GSN, formerly the Game Show Network. Realizing they were about to go head-to-head, the pre-contest buzz (or invective, if you’re looking for the precise word) was filled with, what else, but mind games.

“See that?” said Thomas Burke, a junior at Boston Latin Academy, pointing to a student holding a ziplock bag of color-coded flash cards. “That is called choke. Everyone who studied is going to choke.”

Less than 100 students were gathered for the contest, which was a preliminary round to shrink the field to a winner to send to the finals in New York City. The group comprised the 100 students who scored best on a preliminary exam, out of the 14 Boston high schools they represented. Now, they had a shot at the finals, where the crown of National Vocabulary Champion (well, at least according to GSN) awaited.

But that didn’t necessarily mean everyone spent the week nose-in-dictionary.

“I have a 200-line test on Virgil tomorrow at 9 a.m., a paper due next week and a soccer game tomorrow,” said Ben Alterman, a tall, jockish type who also attends Boston Latin Academy. “I have no idea why the hell I’m here.”

Alterman’s busy schedule precluded him from studying for the contest, but he said he planned to rely on his knowledge of Old English and Latin to see him through.

“What is English? It’s Latin, it’s Old English,” he said.

A friend, who goes by MK, chimed in.

“We’re going to rely on our classics education curriculum – there’s a good vocabulary word,” he said, referring to curriculum.

“Our Latin got us this far, so we might as well take it all the way,” Alterman said.

The two then high-fived.

There was less confidence in the air minutes later, as the students took the stage in the Curry Student Center Ballroom, which was refitted with decadent lighting rigs and no less than 14 plasma TV screens.

Some were squinting in the bright lights, fidgeting and occasionally giggling nervously. Their parents and teachers, seated in the audience, cheered. As they strode onto the stage, the students were greeted by host Dylan Lane.

A GSN fixture, Lane’s Oxford was untucked and he wore jeans, but his head bore the features – and hair gel – of Wink Martingale.

He asked one student, Jennifer Nguyen of Brighton High School, how many hours she spent studying.

“None,” she said.

Over the first two rounds, the competition decreased to seven participants as others were eliminated.

Contestants were tripped by eliminations – where they were required to pick which word out of three didn’t belong. (For instance, take ambient, ambiguous and ambivalent. It’s ambient – which has to do with light, not shifty perceptions, but Alterman picked ambiguous).

In the second round, students faced multiple-choice questions that matched common phrases with less-used words.

A synonym for omen? Blessing comes to mind, but the answer was auguary.

Watch your mouth you … irreverent? Nope. Malapert.

The copious amount of words flashing across the TV screens meant the fate of a contender could turn unexpectedly.

Linda Bui of Excel High School cruised into the second round, but was stumped when the subject turned to music.

“The one about the instrument, I just didn’t know it!” she said.

Brian Herzog, a Boston Latin Academy freshman found crunching rapid-fire on complimentary potato chips after he was eliminated, said some of the second-round questions left him dumbfounded.

“Like the first round, some of them were just butt-easy,” he said, mumbling over the crunching as he shoved more chips into his mouth. “Then they got harder. But I’m just happy to get in with all the seniors and juniors.”

In the final round, with MIDI keyboard-crafted mood music as backdrop, students had to answer questions about words given in the context of a paragraph.

Richard Goggin managed to answer eight of the questions correctly in a little more than a minute. The runner-up answered five.

Goggin, a computer science enthusiast and chess club member, won a $5,000 scholarship. Now, he’ll go to New York to compete against 49 other winners from around the country for $40,000 to be invested in a higher education plan.

“The [preliminary test] was so hard,” he said. “I seriously didn’t even think I’d qualify. It was so hard that some people just drew pictures. But the first round I got the very first question. Then the others took so long. It just psyched me up.”

The other students didn’t lose out, either. They received a gift bag valued between $80 to $100, according to GSN personnel.

When told of the gift bag, the students showed signs of more than just book smarts.

“I could sell that shit on eBay,” one yelled above the crowd.

As for the promised national TV appearance, that’ll have to wait. The show will be broadcast in 2007 on GSN.

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