An Epic Competition Shrouded in Mystery
An electric excitement filled the High School students’ veins at the announcement of the arrival of the annual and extremely secretive series of faculty games: the Third Annual Awesome Bracket competition. Many students ran around the school filling out bracket papers placed near the participants’ avatar boards and determining which teacher they presumed would take the crown in each game. They also attempted to catch teachers in the act of competing in order to figure out what game they were playing.
The annual competition begins each year in February and aims to end before Pesach break. The idea originally began as a fake competition that would just consist of Dr. Stephenson and Mrs. Brand, the creators of Awesome Bracket, moving teachers’ names around on a large bracket posted on a wall purely to “mess with the students,” as Dr. Stephenson put it. However, as the excitement grew and suggestions for competitions began flooding in, Dr. Stephenson and Mrs. Brand realized that they could actually plan a faculty competition with real games. Eventually, the idea developed into what is now known as the Awesome Bracket.
The first Awesome Bracket began in the 2019-2020 school year as a means of brightening up both the teachers’ and students’ lives in between winter and Pesach break, to make the long stretch easier on both groups. In this competition unique to AJA, teachers secretly compete in games testing feats of strength, intellectual prowess, or simply random talents during their free time at school. The games are determined, created, and arbitrated each year by Dr. Stephenson and Mrs. Brand after they send out emails about Awesome Bracket and arrange the participants’ avatars. Additionally, they try to make sure that the games are not too time-consuming yet still very amusing for all those involved.
While the nature of the games remain secret even after the games have ended, Dr. Stephenson and Mrs. Brand shared that in last year’s competition, one of the games involved adult contestants competing in a game of golf using toddler putters. Many times, Dr. Stephenson and Mrs. Brand decide on the games based on who has advanced and will be playing in the next round, such as during last year’s competition, when they created a matching game with song titles, Jewish holidays, Torah personalities, and Rabbis for the Judaic teachers, the only remaining contestants. Although the competitions are usually different every time, many have a common theme of making teachers play games using childrens’ sets, demonstrating the Bracket creators’ senses of humor. Mrs. Hecht, who placed fourth last year, commented that she learned from her participation in the Awesome Bracket that she enjoys “seeing her colleagues having fun in non-adult ways,” and that the games proved that “it’s not all about homework and tests” for teachers; they like to have fun, too.
To maintain this fun experience, all faculty members must follow the rules of each competition and are required to keep the nature of the games a secret from the students by telling them the moderators’ agreed-upon cover story. For instance, last year during the Awesome Bracket at the time of the pandemic, the cover story used was that they were playing socially distanced mixed martial arts cage fighting for each round. Although they may use violent-sounding cover stories, the games themselves are meant to be fun, safe, and not at all like the Hunger Games or Squid Game.
All of this secrecy can sometimes leave students feeling out of the loop. Freshmen Yaakov Wasserman and Eliana Linsider shared their frustrations with not being able to know the types of games being played. “The Awesome Bracket is really fun, but I wish they would tell us what the competition was,” Eliana commented. Similarly, Yaakov thought that “it was worth one minute of fun when you fill [the bracket] out,” but he “lost interest in it because [he] didn’t really know what was happening.” Although the Awesome Bracket is incredibly fun for the teachers to both participate in and watch students’ difficulty in figuring the games out, some students believe it has nothing to do with themselves and lose interest in the competition, only to regain curiosity when their teachers would discuss it or new updates would be made.
However, one aspect of the competition that unites the students and teachers in the Awesome Bracket is strategy. For instance, Mrs. Hecht believes that hope and caffeine played major roles in her success last year. On the other hand, students interviewed, who did not know the games, said that their strategy for filling out brackets involved voting based on who they believed had random talents or whom they liked best.
After the competitions are completed, the winning teacher is crowned the King or Queen of Awesomeness in a ceremony using a 3D-printed “Crown of Awesomeness,” or in the case of Rabbi Houben, given a T-shirt commemorating his winning of the Awesome Bracket of 2021. On the other hand, the student who has made the most accurate predictions of the winners that year is awarded either a mini crochet doll of their favorite teacher or the opportunity to participate in the planning of the next Awesome Bracket if they are a returning student.
Such activities can add to school spirit and can serve to make AJA’s culture distinctive. Although students may want to know more about the competition, they agree with teachers that the Awesome Bracket has been an incredible opportunity to bond with each other as they root for their favorite teachers, learn new things about one another, and escape from the realities of life, especially during the pandemic.
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