Fifteen teams. Almost a hundred people. Twenty-one questions. And me, balancing on a stool at the front of the bar, desperately trying to project my voice. “Can everyone please be quiet?” I’m hoarse; I don’t have a microphone. Then, louder: “Can everyone please shut up?”
It’s a scene that repeats itself every Tuesday night, from 7:30 to 10 pm. It’s hectic, frustrating, and exhilarating, and I absolutely love it. It’s Trivia Night at PJ’s, across the street from campus, and I’ve been hosting the whole thing for a little over a year. I took over from my friend Noah, a school legend and former SAAB-member known for leading the crowds at lacrosse games with his booming baritone. He was loud, and funny too–whenever the players got too rowdy, he’d deflate the tension and grab their attention with well-timed pop culture joke. I’d been coming to trivia on and off for three years when Noah mentioned that, after he finished grad school, they were going to need a new host.
“You should try out,” he suggested.
What? Dude, no. While Noah was a presence, well over six feet, I was 5’3 and barely a hundred pounds. My negligible experience with public speaking included class presentations and an ill-fated jaunt in seventh grade speech contests. I could be funny, yeah, but only if you gave me time to think through jokes; there was no way I could come up with cracks so quickly on the fly. Simply put, I would be bad. I was sure of it.
When I gave class presentations a shot, I was great at them. I’d been giving talks advertising the Writing Center for two years. Plus, I had what I like to call a ‘pathological need for attention.’ And I could be loud if I wanted to, right? I got shushed in movie theaters a lot; that had to count for something. Finally, at the core, I was so happy to be asked. PJ’s was–and continues to be–one of my favorite places on campus: where I gathered with friends to talk, where I watched playoff lacrosse, where I requested terrible early 2000s song after terrible early 2000s song. Noah thought I could do it? Then hell yeah. I was in.
After a terrifying tryout that saw me messing up every one of Noah’s iPad scoring algorithms, I learned that I’d somehow gotten the job. Me! Me! By the way, I was told, there was no budget for a microphone. Since Noah didn’t need one, it was assumed I wouldn’t either. That was fine, I thought. How hard could it be? How loud could the players get?
Loud. Really, really loud. By the end of my first week solo hosting, I’d completely lost my voice. The crowds for end of the year and summer trivia were enormous; it got so packed that some teams had to sit at the pong tables. There were nights when the place wouldn’t even stay silent for introductions–“I’M GRACE,” I’d scream, to a chorus of “WHAT?”s. When my voice wasn’t cracking, the speakers were blowing out, or the questions were wrong, or my spreadsheet glitched. I left each week exhausted, albeit thirty dollars richer. “It’ll get easier,” everyone said. “It has to get easier.”
It did not. It’s still not easy to balance on the bar and to scream out each question. I still inwardly freak out when answers are contested, or a team lobs a crude joke about yours truly. But now, I’ve learned to compartmentalize that panic, to feel it for an instant and then lock it away. “If you can prove it’s wrong, come at the end of the round and I’ll add back your points,” I tell that one team who always thinks they’ve been slighted. Dirty jokes? Firing off a reply’s now instinctual, one that has everyone in the bar laughing with me. I can shut you down in a second and do it with a smile, turn around in the next instant and be as likable as ever.
A few weeks ago, I even worked up the courage to confront a few regulars I know always cheat. Everyone knows it, but they spend so much money, have been coming here so long, that the unspoken wisdom is just let it go. But you know what? I’m the boss. So I called them up, told them no one could possibly get everything right. And they admitted it. They did! And then they apologized. “It won’t happen again,” they said. And it hasn’t. People listen to me now. It feels freakin’ great.
That, in the end, is the most unexpected benefit. Working at the Writing Center taught me how to engage with students, how to discover and nurture their analytical strengths. But thanks to trivia, I know how to command a room–how to capture attention, how to captivate those who do not want to listen. I’m confident, now, in front of huge crowds–can public speak with ease, know the perfect balance to strike between slapstick and strict. It’s those skills that’ll prove invaluable in a lecture hall, when I’m teaching students at UVA and beyond. I won’t be asking undergrads to name the five countries with the highest rates of wine production, but I will have to get them to like me, to care. And if I can do it with almost a hundred trivia players each week, I’m feeling good about my chances in the classroom, too.
So come see me. 7:30. I’ll be working through the end of June. Come hang out and play–it’s hard, but it’s fair. And be sure to brush up on your Oscars knowledge. Somehow, we always ask about that.