The Optimism Rollercoaster on Competition Day

When we make State,” my son said to the Drowning Robots early on competition day, “we’re going to make a prototype.”

“Yeah!” they agreed. “When we make State!”

They are a middle school robotics team. The competition combines an environmental sustainability project with challenging robotic missions. Three presentations. Three programming sessions. Only six would qualify for State.

“And when we have a prototype, we’ll make Nationals!”

“Yeah!”

Remember, this was early.

“Where do we go if we win Nationals?”

“Disney?”

“Oh, then we’re going to World!”

The presentation of their water evaporation tower project – adapted from a strange looking orange contraption piloted in Ethiopia – to water lawns, golf courses, and recreation fields went beautifully. Their Core Values presentation went swimmingly. Their ability to discuss how they went about building their robot and designing programs impressed the judges.

These kids can talk.

And it was still early. “Nationals are in Houston or Detroit. Which one should we go to?”

But then came the robotics. Tension rising with each round. Round One had them in 22nd. Everything that had worked for weeks in practice failed them. The team buckled down. While other teams threw plastic bottles of water at each other, this team worked on their programming. “We can do this!”

But in Round Two, they dropped to 24th. After the final round, revising programs on the fly, they remained near the bottom of the pack.

One of the Dads gave a beautiful pep talk to unhearing, sad faces about their work ethic, team spirit and grit.

They begged to leave before the award ceremony. “We’re just making excuses,” my son whispered to me.

“Even those toddlers throwing water at each other can program better than us,” moaned one of the girls.

But more than an hour later, they heard, “The Core Values Award goes to the Drowning Robots!”

And… they are going to State. Their presentations were so good that talking catapulted them over 16 teams who beat them at robotics.

And the very first thing my son said?

“We’re building a prototype, and we’re winning the Project at State.”

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Parenting at Midnight

I have been waiting for my 8th grader to crash. Last night was the Middle School play, for which he was on Tech Crew, arriving home at 9:30 to do his Math homework. The night before, he attended a high school open house after showing up at school early for robotics, then working on Tech Crew after school, eventually coming home at 9:00 to take an online Science test. The night before that, a two-hour basketball practice. His first of the season.

On Friday night, he will get home from basketball practice at 8:30, then wake up early Saturday for an all-day robotics competition. He’s been putting in a lot of hours across the board.

But he has been full of energy through it all. With an “I’m good!” anytime I asked if he needed help or wanted to wait until morning to complete assignments.

Last night was the same. Chatty. Feeling great about the play. “I’m good!” The Math, he claimed, was easy.

Then just before midnight…

“Mom, I threw up.” All over both levels of his bunk bed.

Sigh. I pulled on socks and a sweatshirt to survive the chill after sleeping deeply in my warm bed. Took a look at the damage, then headed to the kitchen for Clorox wipes and paper towels, where…

…the floor surrounding the dishwasher was flooded with soapy bubbles.

And the first thought that entered my head (after “I’m going to kill whoever put the wrong soap in the dishwasher”) was that if anyone has the right to cry it’s him. Not me.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” he whispered at me. Not crying.

Deep breath before re-entering the vomit-y bedroom. “We’ve got to wake up Dad” to divide and conquer.

Together, we cleaned up the bubbles on the kitchen floor. Threw our son’s blankets in the shower, then to the laundry. Clorox wiped the bedroom floor. Then cleaned out the chunks collected at the shower drain. Took out the trash. Put together a comfy bed on the floor for our very tired boy, who fell instantly back to sleep.

Then back in our own room, “I can’t fall back to sleep.”

“Me neither. I’m not good at throw up.”

“Me neither.”

“And my stomach hurts.”

Football Dreaming

Our eighth grader does not yet weigh 80 pounds, despite much effort to gain weight over the last year. Yet he sees himself as a football quarterback. He has the leadership skills for it, but…

When a high school principal asked him a few weeks ago what activities he would like do at her school, he said, “Basketball, guitar, debate, maybe robotics, and if I gain 100 pounds this summer, I want to play football.”

She thought he was joking, and was totally charmed.

The dream continues to percolate. “Mom,” he said the other day, “how much exactly would I have to weigh for you to let me play football?”

“A hundred and fifty.”

“Seriously?! But I’d be playing quarterback. I wouldn’t get hurt!”

“Okay, a hundred.” Might as well make it sort of attainable.

Meanwhile, his older brother is at the 150-pound mark. Strong. Loves to get in the way. Would make a decent offensive lineman. But he plans to sacrifice his body to football in another way.

When he got his learner’s permit, he registered as an organ donor. “I’m donating my collarbone to Aaron Rodgers.”

…because even the best quarterbacks with bones bigger than toothpicks get tackled. And there are many ways to be a part of a sport you love. Sometimes, when you’re a 13-year-old boy, it’s just tough to see that.

His Arm in a Sling

Yesterday, the name of my sons’ school flashed as the phone rang. Ugh. Images of vomit on his school supplies or his hands around someone’s throat at recess flashed in my head.

“Hellooooo?” Please say it’s vomit.

My fourth grader had apparently crashed into the fence during a football game and was claiming he broke his collarbone. (A potential copycat injury, as our friend broke his last weekend.)

“Jennifer, he’s sitting in the office with me right now, and we have ice on it.” Her voice was sing-songy as if to say “read between the lines, Mama.”

“Soooo, is this a come-get-him kind of broken collarbone or the kind that ice is making better?”

“Ohhh, I think the ice is doing a goooood job.”

I laughed. Ice is magical.

“But the teacher on recess duty is coming to confirm that he’s okay. How about I call you back after she checks out his shoulder?”

“I’m here if you need me.”

Then she whispered, “He’s very cute.”

Ten minutes later, the phone rang. “Now Jennifer, he thinks he can stay for Chess Club, but he doesn’t want you to be alarmed when you pick him up, because his arm is in a sling.”

What a player.

Two hours later, I picked him up from Chess Club. “Oh goodness! That must have really hurt!”

Dropped his friends at their house. And as I got back in the car to take him home, he pulled the sling off, big grin on his face as he waved his arm around.

“Phew,” he said. “I think it’s better.”

 

Seven Games to Go

Waiting outside the gym, one of the 4th grade team Dads approached, “Soooo, you were a high school baller?”

Nope. Never played in my life. Total dork.

“Uh, what?”

I smiled, “I’m the only one who would volunteer.”

My first game as coach of the 4th grade team was chaos. My plan for subs didn’t work because the refs told me they don’t really go by the stated rules, on which I had based my subbing plan.

Rookie coach.

And what gym has the parents sitting right behind the players’ bench?! Nightmare.

The gym had the worst acoustics ever. Our opponents had four 6’5” Dad coaches (all with ridiculously loud voices and likely played when they were 10 and 18) and three kids who shoot like Stephen Curry. Our kids didn’t know who they were guarding now that we don’t use colored wristbands. And no player could have heard what I was saying to them even if they were inclined to listen.

Plus, I can’t blow my whistle during games. We are the Bad News Bears. They need my whistle.

Good news? My co-mom-coach is way cooler under pressure than me. My son played good defense and left the game happy. Our star shooter stopped himself from crying even though we were losing so badly. And the player most likely to get thrown out of the game only said “Damn it” once.

One down. Seven games to go.

In a few weeks, we are going to rock this!

The Last Game

Brad Paisley’s Last Time for Everything reminds his fans of all those moments in their youth that will never happen again for them. A sad nostalgia for their glory days.

And on the day my eighth grader played his last soccer game with the friends he’s played with his entire life before they split off into various high schools, the song kept playing in my head. He may not ever play again in this world of “cut” high school sports.

But I find that life is funny and filled with surprises.

Yesterday, before heading off to his game, I found myself doing a few things that, at one point years ago, I thought I had done for the last time too. At 7am, I was in the basement of our school library with his robotics club making a poster with glittery letters. Was the last time I did that in middle school?

At 1:00, I was learning a new song in my piano lesson. Until two years ago, I last played when I was 18.

Then in a first time long after I should have had my last time, I blew my whistle coaching fourth grade boys’ basketball (which I have never played, but wanted to).

A few weekends ago, I roomed with my college roommate, making it, after almost thirty years, the new last time.

So, as I drove to my son’s last soccer game, I was less sad for him. He too will have fun with life’s surprises… his next times.

My Teenagers’ Friends

My best friend is very likely still my best friend because she was nice to my younger sisters. When she invited me to the mall or movies, she assumed they would tag along. Never in our entire friendship did she ask ”do they have to come?” or act annoyed that they dragged out their sleeping bags for our sleepovers. She just embraced being the fourth sister – as responsible for my sisters as I was.

I guess that’s why I judge the friends of my two teenage boys by how they respond to a little brother in their midst.

He’s ten. He’s loud. He wants to play. He thinks he’s one of the big dogs… but really, he’s still the little guy. He might cheat. He might even cry.

So, I love teenagers who are good to him, and his two older brothers seem to hold onto the friends who are.

Last night, a long-legged teenage boy ascended the stairs from our basement brandishing a nerf gun. My ten-year-old was at his heels. The teenager – a friend of our eighth grader – wore a too-small army helmet and a knight’s silver armor from old Halloween costumes. The little guy wore an orange ski helmet, goggles and a grin from ear to ear… because they were playing his game, on his terms.

And it struck me instantly, as it has before, that this lanky teenager is a great kid. I’m glad he’s my son’s friend.

It was hours later, trying to fall asleep, that something else entered my mind. Does it ever cross his mind to say, “Do we have to?” Because I realized it never crossed mine, as we were trying to be cool teenagers, that my best friend might not want little sisters tagging along. And…

She was ten. She was loud. She just wanted to play…