We’re a nation that celebrates competition, aren’t we. Super Bowl. Kentucky Derby. World Series. Indianapolis 500. Dancing with the Stars. Jeopardy.
Today, Sweetheart Al and I took part in our favorite local competition: The Academic Decathlon.
This premier scholastic competition for high schoolers, gives kids a chance to excel in intellectual and social competition that’s every bit as intense as something you might see on television.
Students who choose the decathlon as an elective, work during the summer and from September to February of the school year, preparing for today’s big event. This year’s topic was the French Revolution, and the kids studied the economics, art, music, language and literature, mathematics, science and social aspects of the revolution.
Each participating school sent a 9-person team to today’s competition. The teams had three students with an A grade point average, three with a B gpa, and 3 with a C gpa.
The competition began early with written tests and essays.
Mid-morning came the part that volunteers like Al and I get to judge. That’s when the kids give speeches and are interviewed.
Last year we judged speeches. Each student gives a prepared speech from memory, followed by an impromptu 1-minute speech. For the impromptu, they choose from three topics given to them by the judges. They have a minute to prepare and then deliver the speech.
This year, Al and I judged interviews. Each student is interviewed by two judges who evaluate how well the student does. Kids are judged on how well they listen, how well they answer, their use of language, how comfortable and confident they seem and so on.
Besides the normal "tell me about yourself" questions, we asked things like: Can you describe a turning point or milestone in your life? And What distinguishes you from other individuals?
Every year Sweetheart Al and I come away from the Decathlon energized and reassured about our nation’s future.
Some of these kids are dealing with serious problems – alcoholic parents, mentally ill siblings, dads who have lost their jobs in the Great Recession, and so on. Some deal with problems of shyness, awkwardness, or feeling "different." Some are jocks, some are geeks, and some are kind of wandering around trying to find themselves.
But all of them are interesting and inspiring. To see them so enthusiastic about the French Revolution was a pure delight. The kids are bright and capable, disciplined and honest and carry within their young hearts a refreshing earnest hopefulness that makes me want to laugh out loud it’s so good.
This year I met a young filmmaker, a girl who loves welding and horse racing, a football player whose milestone was playing with a team who had a 5-0 year. I also met a girl who described herself as a techy-geek.
When I asked her about a turning point in her life, she said taking Academic Decathlon was her turning point. She said studying and practicing with her team gave her a feeling of belonging she’d never had in school before. She said not only had she enjoyed learning about the French Revolution, but she felt like her coach and teammates had become like a family to her.
And isn’t that what team competition is supposed to do? Create a sense of belonging, of family?
For Al and me, meeting such hard-working young people who are heading into the future with hope and determination fills our hearts with joy.
If these kids are America’s tomorrow, there’s a great future ahead for us all.
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