Television writer/producer David Simon might have just picked up a MacArthur Award, commonly called a "genius grant." School principal and supermom Debbie Phelps might excel in educating others. And Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake might have the intellectual firepower to run an entire city.
But that doesn't mean they're up to the challenge of repeating the sixth grade.
Indeed, Simon had to rely on two petite powerhouses — middle-school students Tyteyona Berry and Rickelle Carter — to defeat five other teams Saturday night in an "Are You Smarter Than a Sixth-Grader" fundraising competition. At the end of the evening, Simon's group, the Smartie Pants, was declared the winner of the charity event, which was loosely based on a similarly named hit television series that pits schoolkids against grown-ups.
Backstage before the show began in Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium, Simon was sweating.
"If the questions are about Baltimore crime or New Orleans music, I'm there. Everything else, my teammates are going to handle," said Simon, who has created two acclaimed television shows for HBO, "The Wire" and "Treme."
After the show was over, he said, "They carried me."
And indeed, it was Tyteyona who came up with the correct answer when the team was asked which element on the periodic table has the chemical symbol of B (boron). And Rickelle, who shines at language arts, was instrumental in picking out the superlative adjective in the sentence, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." (The correct answer is "sincerest.")
They're enrolled in the all-female Sisters Academy of Baltimore, which provides free tuition for girls from the fifth through eighth grades who come from low-income families. Officials were hoping the charitable event would raise $50,000 to help pay the costs of educating the school's 65 pupils.
The Wise Guys, led by radio talk-show host Marc Steiner, fought hard to take home the coveted Cavanaugh Cup and came in a close second, while the Brainiacs, captained by WBAL-TV anchor Rod Daniels, placed third.
Good-sportsmanship awards went to the Rocket Scientists (coached by Phelps, the mother of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps), the Know It Alls (guided by Rawlings-Blake) and the Einsteins (headed by Enoch Pratt Free Library head Carla Hayden.)
Baltimore's version was no mere carbon copy of the television show, "Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?" For example, the girls in the charity event were a year older than their network counterparts; the nuns who run the academy didn't want to put their youngest pupils in the spotlight.
On the broadcast, the grown-ups go up against the kids, while in the fundraiser, the teams vied with one another. And unlike the series, cheating and unauthorized help from the audience were strictly prohibited.
But the pleasure of watching bright, earnest kids zip through problems that stumped their elders was very much the same.
Of course, it was one thing to sit in the audience and tick off the correct responses. It was quite another for the celebrity contestants to cough up those same answers on a brightly lit public stage, knowing that every single one of the 800 crowd members were hoping, however good-naturedly, that they would goof up.
It's a safe bet, for instance, that in the future Hayden won't forget the name of the woman for whom the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," is pining.
Hayden, library head of the city in which Poe is buried, a woman who has every book in the Pratt at her disposal, was stumped. The Einsteins huddled frantically.
They asked to have the question repeated in a multiple-choice format: Was the strange woman named Laura, Lila, Lenore or Lisa?
Parents in the audience beamed the team with frantic mental waves: "It rhymes with 'Nevermore."
But the answer chosen by Hayden's team was "Lila."
She was hardly the only celebrity to stumble.
Rawlings-Blake had planned to cram before the competition. But the set of flash cards she ordered arrived late, and she never had a chance. Had the mail not been delayed, perhaps she would have been able to tally the total number of gifts given in "The Twelve Days of Christmas."
When the Know It Alls confidently presented their answer — 77 — they were told they were off by one. Upon hearing that the correct answer is 78, Rawlings-Blake asked the game's moderators if they were certain.
"That's just like a politician," Bill McCuddy, the show's master of ceremonies, quipped. "They always want a recount."
A few minutes later, when she was asked to identify the nation in which the Industrial Revolution began (England), Rawlings-Blake appealed desperately to the audience.
"I know there's someone out there who needs help with a parking ticket," she said. "I mean it."
For Phelps' part, her performance in the competition proves that her priorities in life are all mixed up.
Instead of spending all her time running Windsor Mill Middle School, where she is principal, or raising three children, including the magnificent Michael, she should have been memorizing the lyrics to lunch meat commercials.
In particular, Phelps should have learned by heart the jingle that concludes, "I love to eat it every day / and if you ask me why, I'll say / because Oscar Mayer has a way with …"
Then she would have known how to spell "b-o-l-o-g-n-a."
firstname.lastname@example.org Test your mettle
Are you smarter than a sixth grader? Here are three sample questions from the contest:
1. To which family of instruments does the bassoon belong?
2. What is the product of 1.2 and 1.2?
3. The Earth's moon is approximately how far from the Earth?
A) 240,000 miles
B) 550,000 miles
C) One trillion miles