The cunning crossword crew

Dec. 5, 2008, midnight | By Deepa Chellappa | 14 years, 6 months ago

Blair teachers cross paths with a puzzling pursuit

"Quiet!" yells math teacher David Stein, staring menacingly around the computer lab in room 316. A hushed, reverent silence envelops the room. Taking a seat at his computer, Stein looks right and then left at his fellow teachers, who have their fingers eagerly poised over their keyboards. "Ready?" he asks. "One...two...three...go!" The day's notorious crossword puzzle has begun.

Stein and Donaldson work together to fill in the blanks, hoping to finish the puzzle in about two minutes.  Photo courtesy of Deepa Chellappa.

Science teachers James Schafer and Robert Donaldson, social studies teacher David Swaney, Network Administrator Peter Hammond and their leader, Stein, are members of the Blair Puzzle Project, a self-described team of "experienced puzzle solvers" that "strives each day to make the world a more logical place." Every day during 5A lunch, they occupy a section of the computer lab now reserved specifically for puzzle solving. Each claims a corner of the day's New York Times online puzzle and helps one another to solve every down and across as fast as possible - looking up answers online is strictly forbidden.

While other faculty may connect over lunch or coffee, these teachers are united by their avid love of the crossword. They are among the 26 percent of people who regularly attempt to solve crosswords, according to the U.S. Newspaper Advertising Bureau. The Blair puzzle solvers may not be experts, but their enthusiasm is unbridled, proving that anyone can master the art of puzzle solving with experience, dedication and a support system of four or more friends.

A way with words

The Puzzle Project started out humbly, with just Stein and Donaldson laboring over the Thursday crossword, but slowly grew last year as more teachers joined. The group keeps track of their completion times, compiling the average for each day of the week in a spreadsheet (Stein even uses the information as part of the final exam for his Applied Statistics class). As the puzzles progress in difficulty from Monday to Sunday, sometimes even the puzzlers get puzzled, causing their times to increase.

And the numbers are serious - for the members of the Blair Puzzle Project, solving puzzles is no mere diversion; it can turn fiercely intense. With his face inches from the computer screen, Stein desperately eggs on his fellow puzzlers. "Come on…almost there," he mumbles, as they begin to tackle the lower right corner. This particular day ends in success, with no mistakes.

"We sent that puzzle crying home to momma!" Stein exclaims jubilantly, standing up as the students in the lab applaud enthusiastically. Their time, five minutes and 10 seconds, is the second fastest for the challenging Friday crossword.

Stein points out that not all puzzles are so quick. "Puzzling teaches you humility," Stein says. "No matter how good you think you are, there is a puzzle out there that will kick your butt."

Stein quickly concedes that it is helpful to have five people working together on one puzzle. Besides the companionship, each member brings a different talent to the table: Schafer the long word wizard, Hammond the geography genius, Donaldson the ancient society slayer, Stein the experienced eccentric and Swaney… what about Swaney?

Schafer, Stein, Donaldson and Hammond let out raucous laughs as Schafer jokes that Swaney is their weakest link. "That's so Sarah Palin," Swaney retorts, "blaming your shortcomings on others. But that makes sense - Schafer loves her."

Puzzle pals

In the past year, the group has had some incredible times and memorable puzzles. "We're not that good, but we're adequate," Schafer says modestly. "And we've gotten better." They recall some of the most exciting puzzles they have completed. The puzzle on Friday, Sept. 19, 2008, International Talk Like a Pirate Day, is one that will forever live in infamy, Stein says.

Before the group sat down to do the puzzle, Schafer and Stein remember thinking aloud, "Wouldn't it be great if 'shiver me timbers' and 'talk like a pirate' were in the puzzle somewhere?" And there they were - 31 across: "____ Day (Sept.19)" and 8 down: " 'Well, I'll be!' as it might be said on Sept. 19."

"That was a record week and a record day for us," Stein reminisces. "We call it our 'talk like a pirate triumph.' "

Solving puzzles, Stein says, brings the teachers closer together. "It provides us with a sense of camaraderie, but it also makes me hate them," Stein jokes. "Because if we have the puzzle all good and Hammond misspells something, it ruins it." Hammond looks up from his computer momentarily and rolls his eyes. "So it makes us get angry at each other," Stein continues.

Anger aside, the members of the Blair Puzzle Project fully intend to continue filling in the blanks for as long as possible. After all, the teachers agree, it is much more fun to figure out a seven letter word for a Manhattan sitcom when working together.

For more information and to follow the Blair Puzzle Project, visit their blog.

Deepa Chellappa. The high point of Deepa's life thus far occurred when she waved to Mickey Mouse at a Disney World parade and he blew her a kiss in return. Needless to say, she hates Minnie with a passion. In her free time, Deepa can be found … More »

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