Spelling words backward, tackling long math problems and answering geography questions are all tasks the 8- to 12-year-olds on Genius Junior, a new NBC game show, must complete.
Neil Patrick Harris hosts the show, where kids from across the country compete in 12 teams of three. On each of the first six episodes, two teams go head-to-head. The last episodes continue with the semi-finals and finals — and a cash prize on the line.
Lance Kay of Lafayette Hill, a 12-year-old seventh-grader at William Penn Charter School, is one of these competitors. He will appear on the third episode on April 8 as part of the “99 Problems but Brains Ain’t One” team with Silvia Gonzales of Texas and Christopher Lee of California.
Several years ago, Heather Kay, Lance’s mother, noticed Lance had an affinity for math, so she enrolled him in enrichment classes at Mathnasium. When Shed Media, a media organization that produced Genius Junior, reached out to the Mathnasium for recommendations of kids good at mental math, the organization recommended Lance.
“It was weird because I’ve never gotten anything for being good at math and going to [Mathnasium],” Lance said. “And to say that they would recommend me just made me really happy and really thankful.”
Shed Media did some testing and evaluated Lance’s competencies, for which he had to memorize cards and do some math problems. He also had several Skype interviews with the organization.
He flew out to California with his father, David Kay, for an audition.
Lance had two meetings, where his abilities were tested once again. He spelled words backward, read a card deck quickly and completed some math problems.
It was several months before the family heard back — first in an email, then through several phone conversations.
Finally, Lance and Heather Kay arrived in California for the competition — David Kay would join them a few days later. Almost immediately, Lance began bonding with his teammates.
“We could easily support each other,” Lance said. “My team, clearly we had some strong suits of players and not so strong suits. I was not the speller — I can tell you that — I’m pretty much bad at it, but the people on my team were not as good as math as me. So I pretty much took them in math, and they took me in spelling.”
After the first shoot, Lance got to meet the show’s host, the one-time Doogie Howser. He also interacted with the celebrity during the filmings.
“He was great with us,” Lance said. “He was a really nice guy. He just liked to have fun with us. He would crack jokes and stuff, and it was just fun to be around him.”
Far more time was spent practicing for the competition than actually filming. For about nine hours a day, the parents helped Lance and his teammates learn every county in the Midwestern states, do math problems and memorize the order of a deck of cards. They took breaks for meals and to go to the pool.
“We really became like a little family between all of us, which was nice,” Heather Kay said. “The kids really just morphed into almost like a sibling relationship, where they laughed, they cried, they had fun. And the parents were instrumental in making that happen as well.”
Though most of the time was spent preparing, the filming took a long time, too. One episode required more than two hours of filming, Heather said.
“Being actually on it, being on stage, with 500 people watching you in the audience, and then realizing that pretty much all of America might be watching you afterward, it’s not easy,” Lance said. “You actually have to know what you’re doing and not be nervous.”
The family can’t tell anyone how well Lance did or how many episodes he was on. But when Lance returned from California, he started attending a new school, and his classmates and some of his teachers didn’t even believe that he had actually competed on a game show.
Now, they do, and they regularly ask Lance how he fared on Genius Junior.
“I really can’t tell them, which is annoying, but I deal with it,” Lance said. “My friends keep guessing. They keep trying to crack me, which is kind of funny. They keep trying.”
Their friends and family have been watching the show. The Kays plan to throw a party on April 8 when Lance’s episode airs.
Going through the process, Lance learned some important lessons about hard work. Overall, though, his favorite part remains the bond he developed with his teammates.
“These kids are probably some of my best friends,” he said. “I don’t know any kids who I’ve spent about — I can’t really say the time — about nine hours a day and just see each other the entire day and not leave, just work with each other the entire day and actually enjoy each other and not get annoyed at each other.”
Heather Kay wasn’t sure Lance would be able to handle the competition, and she was pleased to find how well he dealt with the pressure of being on a televised game show. But Lance felt differently about going into Genius Junior.
“What I had to have was big,” Lance said, “but I definitely had it — the confidence, the persistence, the determination — all traits that I have and hope to continue having.”
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