Out of context, middle-schoolers blurting out "Auschwitz!" "37!" and "Richard Nixon!" sounds strange, but it made sense Monday morning as 10 Missoula County teams fielded a wide range of trivia questions.
The inaugural Missoula County Middle School Quiz Bowl kicked off at Clark Fork City Church’s Steven Valentine Community Center. Teams from 10 schools – Hellgate, Meadow Hill, Frenchtown, C.S. Porter, Target Range, Lolo, DeSmet, Clinton, Bonner and Sussex – huddled in the corners of the auditorium, hands shaking over the buzzers.
Merle Johnston, sporting a name tag that read “Head Honcho,” came up with the idea for this event. Johnston taught in Frenchtown for 42 years. Now a few years into retirement, he decided to make one of his ideas a reality.
“I worked with a guy in Billings to organize the high school quiz bowl for the state,” Johnston said. “In the back of my mind, I was always thinking, it would be cool to have a Missoula County middle school quiz bowl.”
He needed funding for the buzzers, and then an anonymous donor came through with $6,000.
Johnston brought the idea to area schools earlier this year, talking to principals and parent-teacher organizations. The idea, he said, is that eventually the schools will take over the event.
“I’d like to see this become the highlight of the school year for these schools,” he said. “This is the best time to have it because all of the other competition things are over with, the kids are bored, they want something to do.”
Meadow Hill seventh-grader Alex Ott was quick on the buzzer, often cutting off the reader before the question was over.
“School wasn’t challenging enough for me,” Meadow Hill sixth-grader Myah Lee said of why she joined the team.
Molly Stockdale, Ott’s mother, was at a PTO meeting in March when Johnston showed up, telling them about his idea.
“I happen to be a trivia junkie, so I jumped on board,” said Stockdale, now the team’s coach.
“It started off with the principal making an announcement at school that we’re going to try this. I think like most things in middle school, as one kid joined up, then his friends wanted to be part of it, or hers, as the case may be.”
All of the girls on Meadow Hill’s team are sixth-graders; all the boys are seventh-graders.
The team met a couple of times a week to practice answering questions they found online.
“You have to browse Wikipedia for hours,” said sixth-grader Roxy Strachan.
“While we do have a couple of kiddos on our team who play sports, there are several that aren’t, and I think this is a great way for them to shine outside of the sports field,” Stockdale said. “The thing that I like about this is it’s not just about what do you know. There’s also some strategy involved. They have to work as a team during the bonus questions.”
Seventh-grader Benjamin Hirning had a simple answer for why he joined the team: “’Cause why not?”
He and Strachan both said they got nervous when it was their team’s turn to compete.
“When I’m answering a question, I answer it and then my heart stops and I’m shaking,” Hirning said.
But the nerves didn’t deter them from one of their first rounds Monday morning. They triumphed over Frenchtown, 160-65.
“It’s a little more challenging, and it’s fun to answer questions, especially if you know a lot of random stuff,” said seventh-grader Lorn Jaeger, son of Big Sky High principal Natalie Jaeger.