BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!
I grudgingly woke from a good night’s sleep and tried to shut off my alarm clock with my eyes closed. “Don’t wake up. Keep your eyes closed,” one part of my brain told me. It was late November, and Thanksgiving break had ended yesterday. I pulled my blanket up higher over my head, knowing that it was a school day. I didn’t want to go back to school, especially on a frigid day like this one. Then, I remembered a popular event that arose around this time of year, and I didn’t want to miss out on any of it.
I rubbed my eyes, slid out of my toasty bed and did my best to straighten all the wrinkles out of the blankets. Afterward, I picked through one of many piles of dirty clothes littered around my room. I found an exceptional looking navy blue shirt, a dark orange sweater, and a pair of ruffed up blue jeans. In the bathroom, I did my best to comb my red hair that had gotten too long and fell in a tangled mess in front of my eyes. Then I headed for the kitchen to have a bowl of Frosted Mini Wheats before I pulled on my thick winter coat and matching blue knit hat and gloves. I slipped quickly into my faded white converse that seemed almost tan now compared with the fresh frost that covered the ground just outside the front door.
As I opened the door, my mom greeted me from behind. “You aren’t going to sneak out without telling me goodbye, are you Zacc?”
“Of course not. Goodbye!” I said, snapping out of my thoughts about the upcoming school day as I hugged her. Then off I went.
“Zacc, over here!” my best friend Shaun called out as I boarded the school bus. Seated at the back of the long bus, his small figure was almost drowning in his oversized winter coat. His blond hair was hidden under his hat, causing the freckles covering his face to stand out even more. His large sky blue eyes glittered with excitement as I made my way over to him from where I stood near the bus driver. In just that short trek, I heard bits and pieces of conversation from other students.
“The RoboClash is coming up! Who do you think will win?”
“Joey of course! He won first place for the last two years!”
“There’s no way anyone else has a chance!”
When I got to the back of the bus and sat next to Shaun, he began talking immediately. “Did you hear that Joseph entered the RoboClash competition again? He swept away all of his rivals last year! He basically already won the competition!”
I grunted in reply. Joseph was an amazing robotics designer. He was almost better than the teachers. Joseph won the RoboClash competition for the past two years, and most people assumed he would win a third time. Every year after Thanksgiving break, the school held its annual RoboClash contest. The contest was where all the robotics geniuses in the school got together and built fighting robots to compete with. This was said to be the most exciting competition of the year, and the winner got to take home three hundred dollars.
Students participating in the competition could compete solo or in a group, but Joseph always went solo despite nearly everyone’s attempt to team up with him; everyone but me. I happened to be in the same robotics class as Joseph, but I’m the only one in the class who can barely make a robot turn on. I was interested in what made electronics work, so I took the class and thought that I would invent the next big thing, but I turned out to be very wrong. I felt useless in the robotics field and was in no way worthy enough to join a team with Joseph.
Remembering this fact, my excitement for the competition vanished. I didn’t want to go further with the conversation, so I closed my eyes and rested my head against the rough fabric of the back of the seat. Shaun didn’t say anything more. He thought I was just having another one of my early morning naps.
The school day started out lazily. My first five hours were a bore while grumpy teachers tried to review what we learned before Thanksgiving break. I just sat in the second to last row for each hour so to be able to pay attention when needed.
Then finally, sixth hour arrived. The minute I sat my foot down on the other side of Mr. Shoules’s oakwood door, I could feel the buzz of excitement like electricity. Mr. Shoules was handing out information packets about the school’s RoboClash competition like he did every year after Thanksgiving break. I made my way over to my lab desk in the far left of the room and flopped down next to Shaun who was intently reading over the rules and requirements, even though he probably knew them by heart, like the rest of the class.
Mr. Shoules strolled over and handed me one of the packets. “I’m so sorry Zacc, I almost forgot to give you one. I just know you must have been anticipating this competition,” he said.
“Thanks, no problem,” I replied. I didn’t open the thick packet, though, because I knew the general rules.
At that moment, half of the class were already asking Joseph what he was planning on making, while he sat with his head down, embarrassed for all the attention, and trying to avoid people’s questions. The rest of the class was devising against him, lost in their thoughts on how to build an unstoppable machine. Then there was me. I already wished the competition would be over so we could go on in the class’s lesson plan.
“Ok, class,” called out Mr. Shoules, “for the next two weeks we will work on robots for the RoboClash competition. As you know, you can work alone or with a group to make your robot. The rest of the instructions you need are in the packet that I handed out earlier. It is not required for you to enter the school-wide contest, but you will need at least a basic prototype of a robot for a grade by the end of the two weeks given. Well, I would hate to hold you. You know where all the materials are, and if you need anything, come and see me. Ready. Set. Go!”
Immediately, the kids around me jumped out of their seats and dashed to the many color-coded bins that ran along the perimeter of the room. In the bins were blueprint paper, wires, breadboards, motors, and more: anything imaginable to build a super cool robot with. Then the students raced back to their desks and cracked open their laptops to start programming and experimenting.
I got up out of my seat when the tide of kids went down and trudged over to the bin of blank blueprint paper. I wanted to be done with this project as soon as possible. As I passed the table that Joseph, who was already deep in thought was sitting at, I overheard some classmates try to start up a conversation with him.
“Hey, Joey! I know you usually work alone, but do you think you could help me with my robot just a teensy bit?” one said.
“Yeah, me too. And we can help you elaborate on how to build your robot, and be a sort of, but not quite, a team,” said another.
“And maybe you could give each of us ten percent of the winnings for assisting you,” slyly remarked a third.
All Joseph did in response was nod his head and murmur a “sure”. He didn’t give people much attention when he worked with robots. I walked on past and pretended that I was minding my own business though it did occur to me that ten percent out of three hundred dollars could buy something nice. I quickly dismissed that thought, though, grabbed a piece of blank blueprint paper, and headed back to my seat. I didn’t want to be a moocher like the rest of them.
It was hopeless before I started. Just trying to come up with an outline on blueprints was beyond my line of skill. I doubted that I could even make a robot’s eyes glow! Trying to focus on something that I didn’t know how to do drove me crazy! I went through so many pieces of paper. All I accomplished was a scribbled down rough sketch, and when after I racked my brain and figured out that I had no idea of how to actually put it together, I balled the sheet up and tossed it aside. There was no way I could do this, but I couldn’t afford an E. That would collapse my already shaky grades in this class! All I could think to do was sulk, and I did just that while I tried hard to ignore Shaun, who gave me words of advice and encouragement that I did not want to hear.
One week later, I was still no closer to making that robot, and there was no way I could even think about competing in the competition.
Sitting at my desk, I attempted a robot that was just a box on wheels.
“Come on, Zacc, I know you can do this!” Shaun pleaded with me. Over the last couple of days, it seemed like every one of our conversations included him trying to vainly encourage me in what we both knew I was no good at. He wouldn’t give up on me. Even in class, he would try to demonstrate how to work out some the barriers that kept me back, but to no avail. I appreciated him, I really did, but no matter how hard he would try to help, I just didn’t understand the concepts.
I quietly kept to my work and chose a strategy of ignoring Shaun. I seemed to have gotten my hollow, metal, footlong box mounted upon the eight small wheels. Now I needed to put in some motors and a microcontroller. I took to the microcontroller that was sitting on my desk and started to configure wires. Something started bothering me, though. I felt uneasy, and the hairs on the back of my neck started to tickle as if someone was watching me. I took my eyes off my work, pushed away my long, red hair from my face, and looked around. Sure enough, Joseph was watching what I was doing. I pretended that I didn’t notice him while out of the corner of my eye I looked at how his work was going. His robot was coming around pretty well. It was also in a box type of shape, which brought me no small satisfaction. It moved on treads with a type of claw attached to the top of it. I knew this was nowhere close to his final product, though. He never revealed his awesome creation until you were on the other side of the battlefield than he was.
I heard the last bell ring and packed up my stuff to go. Like nearly everyone else, I knew I had major work to do.
At my desk in my room, I took a crack at my robot again. Wheels on, eyes attached, no loose screws, good. I plugged the microcontroller into my laptop and started to upload the code I typed at school that was saved on a USB. Mounting the controller to the robot was pretty easy, and then I flipped the on switch and took a deep breath. The robot turned on, moved a little, and then… I heard a loud pop sound and watched as smoke rose. I howled in disbelief. Why? Just when I thought I had it, it decided to blow up from the inside!
I heard a knock at my door and quieted my griping.
“Can I come in?” I heard a voice ask on the other side that was definitely not my mother’s.
“Who are you?” I questioned a bit suspiciously.
“A classmate of yours.” The door creaked open just a tiny bit, and in popped Joseph’s head.
Surprised was an understatement. I was so shocked that I could barely find words. Finally, I found a sentence; even though it may not have been the kindest one.
“What are you doing here?!”
Not taken back at all, he calmly testified his cause. “Well, I was just passing by and thought I might stop over. Your mom remembered me from your birthday party a few years ago.” Now he shifted from foot to foot and looked a little nervous. “And I was wondering, would you want to be partners in the RoboClash competition?”
I just sat there at my desk shocked. Did he actually ask me to be on a team with him? Why would he ask me that when he knew I’m the worst at electronics in the whole class? Millions of other questions went through my mind too, but I decided on the best one.
“Well,” he said cautiously, “I never worked on a team before in this competition, and I think you are the top choice for a partner. You’re excellent at designing. You were the only one whose make-shift house withstood the ‘storms’ in science class.” He walked over to where I sat and picked up my slightly charred robot. “Here, let me help you with this.” He started to explain the basics: input signals, output signals, wire attachments.
Then, each evening of the week, Joseph came over and gave me lessons on how to work a robot. We went from basic programming to advanced. I was finally understanding. Throughout the week, we also began designing our own robot to use in the competition. I was amazingly becoming skilled at robotics in so short a time.
It was the final round of the week-long competition, and I stood next to my good friend, Joseph, with a giant grin on my face. We were in a small, dimly lit stadium with spotlights hung overhead. Behind us were hundreds of people- families of the students all over the school- all with craned necks to see around each other to look at the large screen on the wall that was displaying the arena. The RoboClash arena. Joseph and I smoked our competitors with our destruction robot, Circuit Breaker; all thanks to Joseph’s awesome teacher skills which enlightened my inner genius.
I was a little sad when we knocked Shaun out of the competition so easily a few days ago; he was doing pretty well. Of course, now he was rooting for me and Joseph in the stands.
Our robot, Circuit Breaker, is a two foot wide, three foot long, wedge-shaped robot that sat on top of seven wheels. The robot could pivot itself three hundred sixty degrees. It has scale-like metal plates for protection, and could move up to ten miles per hour. It also had sharp metal spikes to ram opponents into the arena’s hazards. Joseph let me control the bot; he said that I well earned it.
When I looked back at the arena, my grin turned to a grimace. Our opponent, Donovan’s robot, Mega Hertz, was working us. We already took nearly twice as much hits it did, and I thought a couple more might finish us. I could tell Joseph thought the same thing, as he was gripping the railing around the arena. If only I can get Mega Hertz into the Grinding Edge: the wall of rotating blades at one side of the arena which can grind a bot to bits if not careful.
I maneuvered Circuit Breaker around as many hazards as possible. I tried to lose Mega Hertz and move it toward the Grinding Edge at the same time. When I looked up, I was happy to see that Donovan had a smirk on his face; he already thought victory was his.
I then made a drastic decision. I drove Circuit Breaker straight for the Grinding Edge with Mega Hertz right behind in position to sandwich our bot into the blades. I knew that Joseph’s eyes were just about to pop out of his head. I was a foot away from the Grinding Edge when I made my move. With Circuit Breaker’s 360-degree wheel turn ability, I spun Circuit Breaker around and used its front end spikes to push Mega Hertz into its final resting place.
The buzzer went off, and the crowd went wild. It was all over. We won. Mr. Shoules came over holding a large, shiny golden trophy. “Congratulations,” he said over the roar of the crowd. “I knew you could do it, boys.”
I held up one end of the trophy while Joseph held the other end. We were both grinning like fools at one another. I was the overly thrilled. It meant so much to be winning three things that evening: a championship, a new friend, and a title: of the second best robotics designer in the school; standing right beside the greatest.