Tony Woodlief | Author

Expect to win

Caleb has been on a robotics team. They use Lego Mindstorms equipment to overcome a variety of obstacles laid out for them in an annual competition at Wichita State University. It was his first year, and I think he must have relied on genes from his mother, given that I have the spatial reasoning skills of a one-eyed cartoon figure.

So the day came for the big competition. Caleb is part of a home-school robotics club, which fielded three teams for the competition. Each team consists of sub-teams which tackled different obstacles — mazes, tunnels, objects that have to be moved. Scenarios, they call them. Teams are judged on how well their sub-teams do on the various scenarios, on their team spirit, and on their ability to explain to the judges what the heck they’re actually doing.

It basically amounted to a bunch of kids huddling across the university gym for an entire day, making trial runs with their inventions, hastily conferring to determine what they should change, occasionally gathering for “official runs” to cheer on their teammates, and generally behaving like sweaty, eager, brilliant little youngsters.

Finally, at the end of the day, everyone gathered in a big auditorium for the awards ceremony. We sat in the very back, where it was easier to swat and shush Caleb’s siblings, some of whom don’t appreciate the artificial constraints imposed on them by pomp, circumstance, and folding wooden chairs. After much ado, the announcer began calling out winners. He came to the scenario winners. Entire teams don’t win these awards, mind you, just sub-teams. He called out a sub-team, from Caleb’s larger team, who were the high scorers on a scenario Caleb didn’t work on.

But the boy, you see, remembered the name of his team. That’s the part of the announcement he heard. He didn’t pause to consider whether this was his sub-team. Down the aisle he rocketed, before we could stop him, arms in the air like an Olympic gold medalist. He jumped up and down with the kids who actually won the prize, while they looked at him in confusion. He leaned in close as their picture was taken, a big grin on his face.

We sank in our chairs with embarrassment. But it was a rookie mistake. No harm done. We waited for him to make his way back to us so we could explain that the award was for a different sub-team, not his.

Then the announcer called out the name of another sub-team from Caleb’s team. Another sub-team, you see, that he wasn’t actually on.

He stopped halfway up the aisle, threw his arms in the air, and shot back toward the stage. “Caleb!” we hissed at him, to no avail. Again with the jumping up and down beside kids who didn’t understand what he was doing up there, again with the mugging for a picture he shouldn’t have been in.

When he finally got back to where we sat, I explained his mistake. He was mortified, though not nearly as much as his parents. Finally they got to the team winners. The home-school club swept the competition, their teams taking first, second, and third places. Caleb’s team finished second. After checking and double-checking to be absolutely sure he was supposed to go down this time, we set him loose for his third run to the stage.

He apologized to the other sub-teams later, and nobody seemed to mind all that much. I think it’s probably a good thing, to believe it when you win, to expect to win. It’s better, at least, than thinking you haven’t a chance.

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