Lisa Johnston grew up watching “Jeopardy!” The whole family loved the show, especially Johnston’s grandmother, who dreamed of being a contestant.
“Her sister lived in California, so she used to say, ‘Someday I’ll go on “Jeopardy!” and we’ll go out to California, and I’ll visit my sister, and I’ll take you with me,’” Johnston, a lifelong East Boston resident, recalled in an interview Monday.
Johnston’s Aunt Judy would often watch with them, and though she was a bigger fan of “Wheel of Fortune,” she too dreamed of a family trip to California and appearing as contestants on those beloved shows.
Johnston’s grandmother died while she was in high school, before she could fulfill her dream, and her aunt is now gone as well. But Johnston was able to make that family dream come true for them recently, as she traveled to Los Angeles to appear on “Jeopardy!” wearing a bracelet that had belonged to her grandmother and been passed down to Aunt Judy before her death.
Johnston, a teacher at Sacred Heart School in Roslindale, isn’t allowed to say how well she performed in the special teachers’ tournament that begins airing this week, but she hinted that her supporters should plan to tune in again after her first appearance on the game show this Friday.
Johnston had tried out for the show three times before finally getting a callback in May of last year, when the show’s contestant coordinators came to Boston for auditions. It was a stressful process, Johnston said, just learning to use the buzzer system properly and facing the stress of having to answer questions with all eyes on her and only a few seconds to respond.
Having completed the auditions, Johnston then had to wait and see if she would be invited to appear on the show, a wait that can last as long as 18 months. Fortunately for her, a teachers’ tournament on the show last year had been popular, and the show was ready to do another. After a follow-up call last August and another in October, she was confirmed as a contestant.
In late January, Johnston traveled with 14 other teachers and one alternate to shoot the tournament in Los Angeles. It was an unforgettable experience — but a surprisingly brief one. Though each half-hour episode takes around 45 minutes to shoot, it feels like much less, she said.
“Once you’re up there, it goes by so quickly,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like you’re actually playing through the whole half hour. It’s just so fast, you get to Final Jeopardy, and we’re all sort of, ‘It can’t be Final Jeopardy! We’re not done. That was too fast.’”
Johnston’s mother went with her on the trip, while the rest of their large extended family waited back home, but they all shared in the excitement. The game show is still an important part of their daily routine. “We have a whole family that shuts down from 7:30 to 8 when ‘Jeopardy!’ comes on. Nobody calls, nobody comes over,” Johnston said.
Growing up in that environment, Johnston was always good at answering trivia questions, something she also contributes to a lifelong love of reading. She’s so good in fact, that she doesn’t get many chances to show off.
“After several years, I don’t get anyone in my family who will play Trivial Pursuit with me,” Johnston said with a chuckle. “It’s not an allowed game anymore because nobody wants to go up against me, even though I don’t feel like I know some of the subjects as much as I could.”
She’s confident, though in her favorite subjects, reading, spelling, and religion, which she teaches to fourth- and fifth-grade students at the Sacred Heart School. Teaching is still a relatively new profession for Johnston, who worked for years as an accountant before returning to school at Salem State College and taking night classes while maintaining her day job. She was convinced it was the right decision, but not everyone agreed.
“Everybody who was a teacher already said, ‘Don’t do that. That’s crazy,’” she recalled. “‘You make a good living. Why would you want to do that?’” But Johnston has no regrets. Now in her third year at Sacred Heart, she’s happy in her profession and enjoys the people she works with.
“The kids are always great,” she said. “They’re just so much fun to be around and to watch them grow and change.”
She also feels fortunately to have supportive colleagues like Principal Monica Haldiman, who was eager for Johnston to have the opportunity to be on “Jeopardy!” That wasn’t the case for every teacher in the tournament.
“She’s been right there, which is wonderful, because there were some other people whose administrators were not understanding,” she said. “She just is so supportive and so willing to have us grow as educators and to make sure that everyone has the chance to achieve what they want to do and that they’re fulfilled in their careers and have the opportunities to make their own lives better, not just the school.”
Her achievement also sets an example for students throughout the school, where the focus this year is on encouraging students to dream big. That’s her advice, too, for other “Jeopardy!” fans.
“I just tell anybody who’s even thinking of it to do it because it really is so much fun,” she said.
Johnston will appear on “Jeopardy!” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17, on WBZ-TV, Channel 4.