Five Questions … With Sarah Manchester, Math Teacher at Takoma Park Middle School
Sarah Manchester is the epitome of calm, cool and collected. She wasn’t anxious when going through two rounds of auditions for Wheel of Fortune, and she knew just what to say to herself to stem the nerves when she finally made it to L.A. to share the stage with hosts Pat Sajak and Vanna White.
“I’ve watched this 1,000 times; I can do this.”
And do it she did, becoming the third person to ever win the top $1 million prize on the longest-running syndicated game show in the country.
Manchester grew up in Silver Spring, attending Pine Crest Elementary and Takoma Park Middle schools before graduating from Montgomery Blair High School. She received her undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University, and a master’s in math education from the University of Maryland. As a student at Takoma Park, she joined the Math Counts team. Today, she is the coach for the Math Counts team at Takoma Park, where she has spent her entire 18-year career teaching high-level math to students in the magnet program. She teaches math, geometry and Algebra 2, mostly to eighth graders.
Her father was an economist and her mother worked as a nurse and taught classes in art history and architecture at Montgomery College. Her brother is a computer programmer in Northern Virginia.
She has always had a thing for math, for crossword puzzles, other word games, such as Scrabble, and ‘80s arcade games.
“Our family has always done crossword puzzles and Scrabble. It’s one of the reasons I was first interested in my husband. He invited me to a Scrabble party at his house. I thought, ‘YES!’”
Her family, which includes husband Dan Newsome, 14-year-old daughter, Raina, and 8-year-old son, Alden, enjoy playing games such as Monopoly, Apples to Apples and Taboo. Manchester loves introducing her kids to favorite sitcoms, such as Family Ties, Gilligan’s Island, The Office and Seinfeld (she has twice taken the New York tour of locations Seinfeld made famous).
“I remember watching [Wheel of Fortune] as a child when I was home sick from school. I still remember the opening words: “Look at this studio, filled with glamorous prizes…” ” Last month, Manchester became the third $1 million prize winner in Wheel of Fortune history. Along with the money, she won a trip to the Dominican Republic.
Manchester says the puzzle she solved in the bonus round to win the $1 million—“Loud Laughter”—was easy. She knew the answer before she even offered her letters to host Pat Sajak.
What an amazing experience! Tell me about the auditions.
I never thought that seriously about auditioning because most auditions are in L.A. Last year, they were in New York, but that seemed like a hassle. Then, they came to Northern Virginia. I thought ‘OK, I can do that. I can spend a Sunday and join the throngs.’ You fill out a profile. They pick people randomly to play on certain days. I tried to make sure there was something interesting in my profile. They gave everybody a shot. There were hundreds of people there.
They ask about your family, your hobbies and interests. So I wrote about my math team and about loving duckpin bowling. They get a lot of teachers, but they said they’d never had anybody who said they coached a math team. I did a short interview up on stage, then a practice speed round. I guessed that puzzle.
A couple months went by and I didn’t hear anything. Then I got an email inviting me back for a second round of auditions. The email said they had a limited number of spots, so be sure and get in touch. I saw it the instant it came in and called. That round was in February and it was also in Northern Virginia. That round was a lot longer and more like the real show. They had a written test with some puzzles to solve; they would give you categories and a couple letters filled in and had to do as many as you could. They scored those and invited maybe 25, 30 people back.
They told us that within two weeks, we’d get a letter in the mail. They said if you don’t get a letter, thanks for coming out. Two weeks and a day later, I got a letter. I paid to fly to L.A. and took my family. I figured even if we came out financially behind, it would be a pretty unique experience for the kids.
May 1 was the taping. [The show aired in late September.] They tape six shows in one afternoon. We had to get there at 8 a.m. We toured the studio, practiced calling out letters and projecting our voices, and spinning the wheel. Vanna [White, the show’s co-host] came out before the show and said “hi” and wished everybody good luck.
After you won, you couldn’t say anything. How hard was it to keep the secret?
I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. But there is a live studio audience. I was always curious whether the news would leak out. I would do searches on Google.
People would ask me how it went, and I would say, ‘It went well. I’m pleased with the results.’
The week before the show aired, my son’s teacher gave him an assignment to write about the happiest day of your life. He went to the teacher and said, ‘I know what I want to write, but I can’t tell anybody about it yet.’ So the teacher said, ‘Why don’t you write the essay and I won’t read it right away.’ I didn’t know any of this. At back to school night, he told me he wrote the essay and tried to scope me out to see what I’d say. He said, ‘I wrote it down; I didn’t say it to her.’ So I talked to the teacher and said, ‘Did you read Alden’s essay yet?’ ‘Yes, I did,’ she said. She seemed trustworthy.
What do you like best about teaching math?
I like it when kids figure things out for themselves or when they come up with a clever way to approach a problem.
We are finishing up a unit on logic in our geometry class. Sometimes, it takes awhile to see the logic behind logic; it doesn’t always mesh with their intuitions.
I joke a lot in my class. I’ll ask my students, ‘How do you know the answer is right?’ They’ll say, ‘It looks right; it seems right.’ That’s when math is interesting, when it might not be the result you would expect.
Like if you add up all the natural numbers to infinity, it doesn’t equal infinity. It equals -112. There are levels of infinity. Every step is mathematically verifiable, yet the result is still bizarre. How can you add all these positive numbers and end up with a negative? I’m lucky I teach students who have an interest in and a capacity to understand something like that and have an interesting discussion about it.
How did you decide to go into education?
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I graduated with my math degree. One of the reasons I decided to try teaching is that I had received a Distinguished Teacher Scholarship from the state of Maryland which helped pay for my undergrad at Hopkins. Except it was only a scholarship if you taught in a Maryland public school for at least four years; otherwise, it was a loan and you had to pay it back. So I decided to try teaching for four years, then re-evaluate. Of course, after four years, I was really enjoying the profession and stuck with it!
What are you going to do with the prize money?
Well, the first thing we did after the show was go back to the hotel and order room service. I had never ordered room service before.
Since the show aired, it’s been very crazy. The show aired on a Thursday. I came back to school on Monday. When I got back to school, there was a crowd of kids outside my room arguing: ‘Is she coming back?’ ‘No, she’s not coming back.’ ‘Of course she is; she loves us too much.
I was always coming back. I like my neighborhood; I like the schools my kids go to. I took the first few minutes of every class period to let the kids ask questions. One of them asked if I would use some of my winnings to get a set of color TI graphing calculators.
We’re taking the winnings over 20 years. It keeps you in a lower tax bracket and we didn’t need a big sum of money for anything. Plus, it’s less temptation to squander it. It doesn’t replace a salary, but it’s a nice supplement to travel, to pay for college.
We’re going to talk to the kids about giving some to charity. A couple years ago, my daughter got a Kids Guide to Charity book. We’ll find some things they’re interested in.
I’ll get more massages. And when it comes time for us to get a new car—our minivan is 11 years old—maybe we’ll get a Tesla.
I’m also interested in travel. My family watches more TV than we probably should. We’ve been watching this documentary about the wildlife of China; it’s a six-part series. Then, it hit me. We can go! Now, we can afford to go see those animals.
Watch Sarah Manchester win $1 million on Wheel of Fortune.