SMS makes first trip to Amazing Shake competition

Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

For the first time, representatives from all three county schools made their way to Atlanta, Georgia, to take part in the Ron Clark Academy Amazing Shake competition.

At Salem Middle School, Assistant Principal Clint Blankenbaker visited the prestigious school while on staff at East Washington Elementary School, but Principal Jennifer Lawyer and the four students — Madelyn Moore, Gus Hanjorgiris, Matthew Strange and Chase Coleman — knew what to expect only from videos and stories from others. They weren’t aware they would get to talk, up close and personal, with Ron Clark and take in the unique energy and teaching styles of the teachers there. They were aware, however, they were about to face some pretty tough competition.

“I was a big proponent in the Amazing Shake because I knew that was something that occurred down there when I was a teacher, but we wanted to make sure there would be a buy-in,” said Blankenbaker. “We had about 160 kids participate in the first round. This was just very basic this year. There wasn’t any sort of process scheduled in advance.”

“I didn’t really know what it was,” said Strange. “I’m one of the Tie Guys here at the middle school, so I decided to do it because I knew it had to with etiquette and manners and that’s what we practice being Tie Guys. Me and Remmington (Tarr) decided to give it a chance. I didn’t know it was a big, national thing. I did it for fun.”

Blankenbaker said the school whittled prospective competitors to the top 15 — five per grade — regardless of gender. Students had to come up and speak with two adults on the stage, introduce themselves and answer a few questions. Those top 15 students proceeded to a three-part gauntlet round with challenges where students had to sell a rotary-style phone, teach a staff member to tie their shoes and sit with three staff members for an interview.

From there, the top four were chosen — Moore from seventh grade, Hanjorgiris from sixth, and Strange and Coleman from eighth grade — and they, along with Lawyer and Blankenbaker, traveled to Atlanta on Feb. 21.

Hanjorgiris said the first round of the local competition wasn’t that nerve-wracking, but the second round was the toughest.

“I knew the judges, most of them,” he said of the first round.

His bouncy personality worked in his favor, said Lawyer, both in the local and national level.

“That’s probably what made the biggest impression on the judges — Gus had a tendency to make sure his spirit was present,” she said.

Moore said she had heard about the Amazing Shake before; her mother is a teacher at Bradie Shrum and “has always loved Ron Clark and how they do stuff, so I’d heard about it.”

“I got super excited when I heard they were going to do it here because I heard they were going to learn soft skills like etiquette and interview skills because my mom said I could talk to a wall, so I was pretty excited,” she said. “I didn’t expect to get this far, though … I definitely was not expecting it when they called my name. It took me a second for me to process that it was my name and not someone else’s. I freaked out for a minute.”

Moore said she didn’t expect to make it through the local levels of competitions.

“There’s a lot of kids in our school and I expected most of them to do it,” she said. “Everyone here is really good about manners and how they act and these sort of skills. I was sure I’d get knocked out by at least the last round we had here.”

Strange, who was ranked the highest of all the Salem students at the national competition, said he didn’t come into the Amazing Shake with expectations.

“I didn’t really expect to win,” he said. “I was just doing it for fun. I didn’t know there was any reward with it. I figured I’d try my best and I probably wouldn’t win, but that’s not a big deal … I was going to do my best, but I wasn’t trying to win.”

He said his first freak-out was finding out the group was going to fly.

“I was fanboying like a girl over One Direction,” he said. “It was scary. I was so excited!”

The students said they really liked the way the Ron Clark Academy was painted — teachers decorated their rooms to their personal tastes and the school itself looked like a castle on the inside.

“They had trap doors and stuff,” said Hanjorgiris. “Stairs made out of money.”

“There’s a door that looks like a picture frame,” said Lawyer.

“What I took from it was being prepared and able to listen,” said Blankenbaker. “As soon as we got there, [Ron Clark] was giving hints throughout the entire competition, even during the practice round. We were able to fly down Thursday evening and go to the practice round Friday.”

During the practice rounds, Strange tied for ninth place out of 266 kids on the first impressions round.

“I was proud of all the kids,” said Blankenbaker. “They did a really good job under some crazy stress.”

“We were really proud of the way they stepped up and were able to compete at that level and show their personality,” said Lawyer.

“[Speakers] just kept repeating, down there, just be yourself,” said Blankenbaker. “Be yourself and you’ll be fine.”

“I’m so glad I realized that,” said Strange. “When we were going into the practice round, it was Circle of Doom, Work a Room and First Impressions and I learned you have to be yourself in the first two rounds, when we got to First Impressions, I was ready.”

Saturday’s competition day was a long one, Blankenbaker said, around 15 hours for some students, depending on how far they progressed through the competition.

“If you were one of the people who started the day with the other 266 kids, and you made it through getting it down to 80, then 22, then 12 then seven then four,” he said. “By the end of day one, they had it down to 12. All those stages happened in one day. The gauntlet stage happened in, 50 seconds times 31, so 35 minutes of going from one station to the next. When the gong rang, your time at the next station started. I really thought when they got to station five, Booger Burger [where they had to defend their gross restaurant to a health inspector], to the dog treat commercial, I thought that five-minute stretch was very difficult.”

Students in the gauntlet had to think on their toes — 50 seconds to get to the next station and be interviewed on “The Tonight Show,” requesting three wishes from a genie, acting as the president of the United States, completing a Survivor round and more before walking a catwalk. Students were weather anchors reporting on natural disasters, recited a 40-second monologue they memorized before-hand, along with a commercial for the aforementioned dog treats, in which they repeated the name “Zippity-Doo-Das-Dog-Diggity-Doggone Treats” multiple times.

“East Washington knew about this, but we didn’t — they actually had a website that told you if you shook the judge’s hand and barked in her face as she left, you could get 10 bonus points,” said Blankenbaker. “From this point forward, we’ll definitely look into stuff like that.”

Hanjorgiris said the monologue was the most challenging part of the competition.

“Nothing would stick in my head,” he said. “My original monologue was going to be from the movie ‘Hoosiers’ when they won the regional championship in the huddle, but I couldn’t remember that, so I moved on to a part from ‘Ratatouille’ but then I had to study that, just in the morning [before the competition] so I didn’t have that, either, and so I just said different stuff from ‘Ratatouille’ and got a 15 [out of 20] on it. I did better than Matthew and he studied his.”

Hanjorgiris said his favorite part was the First Impressions challenge, because of the lack of conversational boundaries.

“People were asking me questions and I could just say anything and make sounds — it’s funny,” he said. “I could say things like, ‘When I hit the baseball, crack!’ They really loved that stuff.”

Strange found himself ranked in the top 80 students at the competition, sending him into the Work the Room challenge and the Circle of Doom.

“With Work the Room, there’s probably 30 or 40 adults in there and they need to go up to as many adults as they can and have conversations they’re scored on and get as many high-score wins as they can,” said Blankenbaker.

“It was a circle of tables and you had to sit in groups and they’d ask a question and you had to debate with your group for four minutes,” said Strange of the Circle of Doom. “Every four minutes, the gong would go off, but you stayed with your group.”

Strange said his favorite moment was waiting to hear the names of the students who made it into the top 80 of the competition and then hearing his name called.

“At first, I didn’t want to do it because none of the other Salem kids got in, so I was like, ‘What’s the point?’” he said. “I asked Mr. Blankenbaker if I had to do it and he said, ‘Yes, you have to try.’ I tried and … in the Work the Room, you have to talk to as many people there as you can in a short amount of time and you have to strategize — how many people are you going to try to talk to and how much time will you spend with them. Do you want a deep, meaningful conversation or short and sweet?”

“If you went short and sweet, you might get a five, but if you have a deep one, you may get a 20,” said Hanjorgiris. “You may have one person get 10 fives, and another get four 20s.”

Strange said he spoke with 17 people and said he believed he was close to making it further in the competition after he performed well in the Circle of Doom, a portion of the competition where students would discuss a topic in groups. Winning, however, would have been a daunting prospect.

“I would have wanted to get into the top 22 and no further,” said Strange. Students who progressed further would have to take part in a lengthy debate.

“He did say he was really nervous about the debate,” said Lawyer.

Blankenbaker said there were CEOs and higer-ups at Fortune 500 companies and others students may have found intimidating in the Work the Room challenge. Students were also able to meet a few more recognizable celebrities, like Storm Reid, who played Meg Murry in “A Wrinkle in Time,” Caleb McLaughlin, who plays Lucas in “Stranger Things” and Strange said he was able to interview an actor who played a walker from The Walking Dead. Students also had a chance to meet Davie Rickenbacker from Survivor Season 37.
Strange said the entire competition was challenging, each part in its own way.

“You had to use different strengths,” he said. “You used a different set of skills for the Gauntlet than you did for the Work the Room … You had to change up your skill set for each station.”

Still, Strange said he wished he had the opportunity to compete again.

“I wish I was in seventh grade,” he said. “I would love to do this again. It was such a blast and I wouldn’t have chosen a different group to go with. It was so much fun.”

Moore agreed the company was definitely one of the high points of the trip.

“At first, I was nervous and kind of upset, just a little bit, that I was the only girl going because I thought they’d go off together and leave me by myself, but that’s not what happened,” she said. “I made new friends, too, so I liked that, too.”

Lawyer called Moore the team’s “calm and composed.”

“She’s very grace under pressure,” she said. “Very much so.”

It was undoubtedly an asset in helping her make it to the national level of the competition. She said the most challenging part of the competition was maintaining her confidence.

“As much confidence as I have most of the time, this was definitely something I lacked confidence in,” said Moore. “There were so many kids and it became overwhelming. The crowd was big and the school was big and the teachers were very strict and it scared me because I’d never seen anything like it. After a while, I was able to calm down.”

She said there were 13 students from Honduras, students from Nigeria and across the United States and its territories. Moore said her favorite part of the competition was getting to meet and befriend some of those students.

“I met this really nice girl from South Carolina,” she said. “I met a couple people from Honduras who were really nice. I got to know the people from Salem better. Matthew and Chase are in eighth grade and Gus is in sixth grade, so I didn’t know them that well and this trip really brought us together.”

While Hanjorgiris didn’t move quite as far up in the overall rankings as he would have liked, he didn’t go away empty-handed. He was given the Gentleman’s Award.

“They give out 10 awards at the end of the ceremony when they announce the winners and I got one of them,” he said. “It’s for being well-dressed and I was one of the only ones to shake his hand when I got the award and stuff.”

“He was in the front row when Mr. Clark first started and [Hanjorgiris] asked some questions that probably made Mr. Clark pay attention to him,” said Lawyer.

Not only did students compete, they were able to explore Atlanta. They took an Uber in the form of a Tesla Model X one morning (base price — $100,700), they went on a train around the town, visited the Olympic Park, rode the ferris wheel and took in experiences they could likely never get at home.

Moore said her family travels a lot, “but it was still exciting because I’d never been to Georgia … I really want to go back and see Atlanta.”

Hanjorgiris said the sightseeing was probably his favorite part of the trip.

“That and just being around my friends,” he said. “It was pretty fun … There was lots of funny moments.”

“This is definitely something I’d like to continue on if we can get the funding,” said Blankenbaker. “I know Gus and Madelyn have another chance to do it, but Matthew and Chase will be off to the high school next year, though I think the experience they had was worth it.”

As for Moore, she said she will “definitely try to go again next year.”

“I’ll try and if I don’t make it, at least I had this year,” she said. “… It ended up being really cool. It was an amazing experience.”


Stay tuned to read about the adventures of students from WW and EW in upcoming editions of The Salem Leader-Democrat!


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