Sunday, November 8, 2015

Robot Update

Thank you to all who constantly ask how my teams are doing.  I have been long overdue answering some questions and good wishes about last spring.  Mostly because I am still not emotionally over it.  Getting into the new season has caused me no end of stress and actually has been one of the biggest contributors to my ER visit that started the 'bad health saga'.

Waiting to start a match
Our guys did unbelievable at the East Super Regional 3-day contest.  It was loud and huge and there were two full days of robot competitions and a day of judging.  One day we set the new Championship record.  It was only surpassed by the World Record score set the next day in the finals.  We also almost set the world record (which would have stood) but as the balls started to drop - the string broke on our lift and the stadium gasped in one full "Ohhhh".  In one match, our partner's robot never started and we still beat the other two robots single handedly.

So going into the last day, we were ranked 2nd in the division (two 36 team divisions play at the same time and then their winners play each other for the grand final).  Then tragedy struck.  We were placed in a game with two teams from the same high school.  One on each side.  And as it would have it, our Captain and driver were new freshmen at that same school.  The long story about what happened can't fully be told - but our partner, the lesser of the two teams, threw the match and has admitted it.  After our team did 'thumbs up' to the refs to start, the team we were with told us they would refuse to score and in fact only took penalty points - it stunned and threw our kids so much as they were actual classmates - they could hardly drive and still we almost won.   It was obvious from the stands what was happening even before the match started.  We went nuts - the refs did not catch it and we were all thrown into great disarray about what to do about it.  You see, that team has been allowed to have an illegal number of members - 80 to the legal limit of 15.  And the coach is a teacher that these two kids have to have in a course they need badly to do well in to get to engineering school and get recommendations from.  So you can imagine what our team decided to do - no contest in favor of making sure their two teammates didn't get bullied by 80 kids and worse, grades/recommendations impacted.  If we had contested it - the two teams would have been disqualified from the Super Regional.  We were devastated.  I got the kids together and we decided to be the 'better men' and to double our efforts in the robot game knowing that being bumped down to 8th in the Division might be the kiss of death for our World's dreams.   They won every other match.

Well, what happens next was the second tragedy.  The top four teams get to be captains and get to choose the other two teams each that will go into the bracket playoffs.  So only 12 teams move on.  The teams line up in front of the stadium and the 'selection show' starts.  In the five min before this - all of a sudden all four captains gather around my son and talk to him about selecting us.  Wow.  We were selected immediately.  Now our chance was high again.  We ended up being the Winning Division Finalists which made us the 7th ranked team at the whole Super Regional.

This became our 7th award of the season, more than any other MA team.

Then came the announcements of what 25 out of 72 teams would be going to Worlds....

And we were skipped.  In a technicality, even though they sent 15 teams who performed in the robot game to Worlds, they skipped us because of our 8th ranking in the qualifying rounds.  They have a glitch in the advancement system that assumes that only teams in the top qualifing rank would get through to the finals and do well.  And teams are penalized for beating other teams by 'too much' by being awarded the losing points as a tie breaker.  We were understandably stunned and devastated.  And the teams that cheated against us - they moved on and enjoyed a week at Worlds.

We sat in our booth (this competition has booths complete with amazing tents and displays) stunned.  Top team after top team came in and congratulated us and asked us to work with them at Worlds, assuming we had moved on and were more than stunned that we hadn't.  We got strange comments like "You guys had the best student-built robot here!" (Implying that not all were student built).  So it hurt over and over for hours having to admit to others that we were skipped and wouldn't be joining them...  Including the team that did it to us.  That was when they learned that their little cheat had actually affected us.  They immediately turned white and literally RAN out of our booth (no doubt now that they had done it).  No one on the teams will look my son in the face at school to this day.  And we have not received an apology which we requested.  It was a very bad teenage decision between those two teams with no thought to the hurt it would do to someone else.

We came back to Boston and the next weekend held a big exhausting outreach event at MIT for 1000 kids.  Afterwards, we sat and talked.  My pride in these kids holds no bounds.  We discussed my conversations with the FIRST organization which were tremendously disappointing.  While they had rules, they weren't going to enforce and the advancement criteria wouldn't change for this year.  Teams that had won the right to move on would be skipped.  I talked to the kids about leaving the organization or finding a new competition to work in.  We discussed what FIRST had meant in their lives and how tremendously disappointed we were in the organization.  I was willing to give up coaching as I didn't have heart anymore.  The term 'Gracious Professionalism' had lost its meaning for me.  I so would like to search out Woodie Flowers and have a conversation.

The boys reflected so deeply.  They decided to do it again and to double their efforts (was that even humanly possible??? Most have learning disabilities they struggle with in the top schools in the country and are honors students - they need to sleep!).  They discussed where they could have excelled more and thus moved on to Worlds.  Some of the newer kids discussed feelings of revenge.  That was when one of the old-timers stood up and made the following statement:

"Guys, if next year is about revenge - we will loose.  If it is about striving to be our best - we will win".

The conversation was completely over.  The Brainstormers would look inward and find all weaknesses and fix them and move on.  I cried.  They have spent the last six months doing that - and you have seen me talk about their work in the inner city and recruitment of three new kids including girls to help them where they felt they were weak.  My biggest challenge in coaching this team has been managing the exhaustion they have pushed me to while keeping up with them and my own feelings that the system is really unfair without a willingness of the organization to fix it and I don't see a way out of that.

Their hunger to win with honor is so palatable around here.  I have seen these kids work and support each other through things other kids of this generation would never do.  Like when Ray had a major ski accident to his hand two days before competition and he was the driver!  While he was in surgery - the other guys found time to come over and train to take his place the next day.  And he showed up to competition and as soon as he was off oxycontin - they would reprogram the controller to allow him to drive with whichever fingers his doctor would allow to be used!  Since there are 10 buttons to control the robot - that was a lot of reprogramming and training that they did for every competition as Ray's hand functionality came back.  It would have been easier to replace him - but they don't do that.  They band together in a brotherhood where sometimes they carry the other on their back.

First scrimmage of the year.  In another coach's basement.
Notice that huge mountain on the corner.  I have to find
room for two of those now - we are going to move all the
furniture out of our living room for 6 months.  I am very, very
unhappy about this.
Yesterday, we went to a scrimmage - the first time our current robot was in public.  And while there
were many things to fix and get better at; the competition was pretty surprised - including the all around winner of the Super Regional.  We came home and the two mechanical guys went right to work to fix all the problems that we saw before our first competition on Nov 21.  Now to do this - they had to call two other kids who dropped everything and were at our house in 20 minutes.  You see - they each had hand injuries this week.  My son broke his right hand finger and the other sliced his and has stitches.  So to work on the robot - two others came over to be the hands directed by those in splints.   It will be a few weeks before either of them can turn a screwdriver!  And in that time, the robot will be completely rebuilt by Thanksgiving - that is their plan.  I believe them as they will find a way.

Our first girl builder helping out another with
a bandaged hand with stitches
My team has learned character and work ethic - through the raw and hurtful lessons of life.  This was the second time my team had won the right to go to Worlds and a technicality had kept them from it.  When they won the 2012 Lego Championship over 400 other teams, they couldn't go because Mass didn't have a bid that year.   There are too many regions in the world to send one team each to Worlds.  So they lottery it every year.  And we missed it, after beating 400 teams.  I think that is why we are back this year as really, it defies all logic as the deck is stacked against us.

"Fail fast to succeed sooner" - that is a quote by the legendary industrial designer David Kelly, founder of IDEO.  They have internalized this so much and what they will do in their lives will be amazing as they have learned to pick themselves off the floor after a sucker gut punch and go at it again.  They are not of the Millennial generation anymore.  As I sit here in my jammies at the kitchen table, the Lego robot is running downstairs - members of the younger team are down there working hard, they take their cues from the older kids.  If you want it - put the work in.  I am stunned, that child is only 11 and arrived with breakfast in hand ready to work for five hours he said.

So I have to coach.  There are many days my heart is not in it.  But if they are willing to go at it again, I will too.  


  1. your kids are amazing! you have taught them well and they have taken that and run with it, you should be so proud!
    setbacks in life build character, they will remember all thier llives to do the right thing, weather or not they are rewarded for that right thing. it's a vauable lesson. more valuable, I think, than winning, never making a mistake or being perfect. I see in my sewing classes older adults who are so hemmed in by those three things, a mistake must be ripped out or thrown away, it's not perfect. your kids have such character at such a young age, they will always be able to see around the badness to that better future, so many of their age don't have.
    I see it in many of the children in our library(im a Librarian) who have never been told no or wait orthey must be so perfect they have ulcers (at 13!)over a bad grade or one mistake. or are monsters who take and cheat to get what they want or need because its expedient or what they have been taught by watching their parents.
    it is heartening to see your young people stand up for the many, even though it hurt them in the end.
    beleive me they are stronger for this lesson, even though it breakes your heart to see them shut out yet again and so are you.

  2. also, better to learn those hard lessons at home where you can comfort them, rather than out in the big bad world, where the blows come much harder and there is no soft place.

  3. You are all so very brave, and we admire you and the kids and the parents who have instilled these values in them. Sadly, they will have to face this ugliness in the world at large throughout their lives, but they have learned to face it with honor--and that's a lesson that is worth learning although it's so painful for all at this point. How proud you must be of them!

  4. Those kids are amazing! Is there someone important who sponsors some of the competitions? Some benefactor somewhere, who wouldn't want things to be so unfair? If so, I would make sure a copy of this post reached them somehow... But no matter what - the kids are incredible, and what they lose out on in these competitions, they will gain so much for their lives as they become adults. What they are going to do in the real world will stun us all.

  5. wow, what a great bunch of youngters!!

  6. Dear trica and ms nibbles
    Winston Churchill(a whole conglomerate of learning disabilities) said it best
    "If you are going through hell, keep going"

    love, and treats for ms nibbles