I kicked off 2017 with a post detailing what I’m looking forward to on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, and now that we’re into February, I owe you a January wrap-up. It’s going to take more than one installment, so I’ll start with two pieces of bonus awesomeness that came my way in the final week of January: judging the Herndon High School Science Fair on January 26 and attending the Year Up Graduation ceremony on the 27th.
Maybe you’re wondering how I landed the Herndon High gig, since I’m a lawyer by trade and my most sophisticated science experiment involved making a geyser out of Mentos and Diet Coke. (Go ahead and try it, you know you want to.) They probably heard about my stints as a Halloween costume contest judge and couldn’t help but be impressed with my juridical credentials. To those who suggest that desperation might have caused the school to lower its standards far enough to admit me, I have two words for you: alternative facts. Now go away.
I felt a bit nervous about venturing beyond my subject matter comfort zone; however, I was mainly just excited to join an event celebrating science, a discipline whose pesky fixation on data-based conclusions just might land it in the crosshairs of the current administration.
On the afternoon of the contest, fifty-some of us volunteer judges settled into the lecture hall, awaiting a training session. I needed it. While I doubted they could teach me all the science I faked my way through as a student at Lake Braddock Secondary School, I hoped they would at least cover topics like “What to do when the students know more than you.”
The lead teacher, Mr. G., went through a powerpoint presentation and explained that we would be judging honors science students who were required to complete a project in categories that ranged from environmental science to chemistry. He outlined the criteria for what makes a project good, including that the students had thought of it themselves, had a personal connection to it, used the scientific method, and understood the science behind it.
As he put it, “You’ll figure out who knows their stuff.” I believed him, but also wondered about the corollary: Would the kids figure out which judges knew their stuff?
He gave us a refresher on the scientific method, just in case some of us had forgotten. Ahem. As he mentioned the steps –problem/question, hypothesis, trial/testing, analysis and conclusion –it sounded vaguely familiar. Had I gone all the way to the back of my memory, I’d probably have found it under a pile of dust, right beside slope and y-intercept.
Mr. G told us to award points for projects that broke new ground, as opposed to projects with a high “been there, done that” factor, which told me exactly how my Mentos/Diet Coke experiment would have fared. He recommended we focus on substance over style — advice I wish people would follow in the dating world– armed us with rubrics, clipboards, and stickers to track the projects we’d reviewed, and then sent us off to the cafeteria, where the students and the projects had gathered.
On arriving at the cafeteria, the first thing that struck me was the incredible student diversity. Actually, that was the second thing. The first was the lingering scent of tater tots, if I’m being honest. But the diversity really did amaze and cheer me. At least half of the students I met were minorities and/or female, a sight that provided excellent counterpoint to a White House and Cabinet packed with white guys.
The students themselves also impressed me, first with the topics they’d chosen to explore, like the correlation between gender and multi-tasking abilities, the impact of color on memorizing information, and the effect of musical training on the ability to detect differences in pitch, and then with their presentation skills. They introduced themselves with a poise I lacked when I was their age (and on occasion still lack), and they seemed to enjoy talking about their projects.
In the end, my teammate, Tyler, and I found Mr. G was right: we could tell which students really knew their stuff and had immersed in their subject. Two girls floored us with a project on the therapeutic use of binaural beats, beginning with the fact that we had no idea what binaural beats were. The girls proceeded to explain in terms even a lawyer could understand that binaural beats are a sort of trick you can play on your brain by putting on a pair of headphones and feeding your left and right ear separate tones that are 5-40 Hz apart from each other and under 1500 Hz in frequency. Your brain focuses on the discrepancy between the two sounds, processes the difference in frequency as a separate/”third” tone, and begins to resonate at that third tone. That resonance can help with concentration, relaxation and even insomnia.
As if reading my mind, Tyler asked, “Can we find examples of binaural beats on the web?” I left feeling optimistic about our future and my chances for a good night’s sleep.
The very next night found me at NOVA’s Annandale Campus to watch a young man I’ve mentored graduate from a program called YearUp. YearUp identifies urban youths who “are highly motivated but lack opportunities to enter the mainstream economy,” spends six months teaching them professional skills employers seek, and then matches them with companies for six-month internships that give the students a chance to gain experience and apply what they’ve learned. It’s a high-support, high-expectations model.
I signed up through my company months ago and was assigned to a young man named Omar. When I’ve participated in formal mentoring programs in the past, the results have been mixed, but within moments of meeting Omar last summer, my expectations for our relationship soared.
A minority whose family has long struggled to make ends meet, he’s the oldest kid and the first in his family to continue his education beyond high school. He left a string of service jobs to join YearUp –definitely not the path of least resistance for someone in his circumstances –because he wanted a better life for himself and his family. Once again I found myself sitting across from a kid whose poise and maturity left me in awe and wondering what I could possibly teach him that he couldn’t figure out himself. As we got to know each other, relaxed and talked about non-work stuff, we found common ground in comedy.
“You do stand-up?” he said. “That takes guts.”
I laughed, because that’s a funny thing to hear from a kid who’s faced more adversity in his first twenty years on Earth than I have in twice that time. I explained that standup doesn’t take guts so much as a weak attachment to your dignity, but it somehow still earned me his respect. Fueled by mutual respect and like, our relationship evolved and our interactions were, at least for me, something to look forward to.
I felt that anticipation especially acutely on November 9, when Omar and I met again for breakfast. Just hours earlier, the 45th president had been elected after running a campaign that didn’t seem to care much about people like Omar and his family. Torn between wanting to cry and feeling obligated to deliver a message of hope, I simply spoke the truth.
“You’re the one thing I was really looking forward to today,” I told him. And then I explained why his blend of determination, enthusiasm and perseverance makes me optimistic.
As I watched Omar walk across the stage seven weeks later, certificate and full-time job offer in hand, I thought of that moment on November 9, the honors science students from Herndon High, and the words of Jonas Salk, who said, “There is hope in dreams, imagination, and in the courage of those who wish to make those dreams a reality.”
I’m betting big on these imaginative, courageous kids.