Applaud us when we run,
Console us when we fall,
Cheer us when we recover.
Diana James and her eleven-year-old daughter, Kate, had never been in a History Day competition sponsored by the Constitutional Rights Foundation before. Three teams from her middle school had worked hard all year on their research projects and had won at their school, district, and county levels to qualify for the big state competition in Sacramento.
For the past three days, Kate and her two teammates had been through the grueling process of presenting their ten-minute video on Japanese American internment camps, fielding tough questions before a panel of history professors, and enduring the pressure and stress of high-stakes competition. Now they were back on the plane headed home to Southern California along with dozens of other student teams, teachers, and their parents.
Diana was sitting near the back of the plane with several other mothers, some she knew and some she hadn't met who had kids from other schools. She could see her daughter and friends several rows ahead. As the mother looked around the plane, she recognized who'd won or lost from Kate's school but not from the others, and she thought some of the kids were behaving kind of oddly. There were three or four students sitting in the front rows who were obviously elated—laughing, slapping high fives to one another, and talking excitedly. These guys were clearly happy campers. But not everyone shared the same euphoria: seated in the next few rows were students appearing as though they had just come from their best friend's funeral, their faces drained, voices muted, shoulders slumped. One or two were subtly trying to wipe away a tear or two. Talk about polar opposites! Diana thought to herself that you sure didn't need to be a detective to figure out which kids on that flight were the winners and losers.
A few minutes after the plane took off, Diana got up and made her way up the aisle to give Kate her sweater, as it was getting kind of chilly. One of her daughter's friends had gone to use the restroom, so Diana plumped herself down for a moment. Across the aisle were two boys from another middle school, the ones who looked as though they'd just come from a funeral, and she couldn't help but overhear them.
"This whole thing was stupid," one boy said to the other. "What a waste of time!"
"The judges asked such dumb questions."
"For sure! And you know those kids from Central Middle were in this only so it would look good on their résumés."
"Well, me too, dude . . . duh. Why else would you do all that work?"
"Hey, I'll tell you something else—I don't think those judges were fair. I saw one talking with a teacher like they were the best buds. It's probably all rigged anyway."
Diana didn't want to hear any more of this complaining and tried not to listen. She was proud that her daughter wasn't a poor loser. Sure, her team hadn't placed in the top three, but she knew her daughter's group had worked very hard and had really enjoyed the competition. These kids were self-motivated and had a terrific sense of responsibility. They weren't celebrating as hard as the kids up front who looked as though they'd won big-time, but Kate and her friends were still excited to have been in the competition.
"I got the phone numbers from the team from Culver City," Kate told her mom. "They were really nice."
"Lots of kids we met were nice," her teammate next to her said. "Don't you think?"
"Yeah, it was fun," Kate commented. "Hey, do you want to do this again next year? I didn't think I'd like history this much."
Diana listened a bit longer as Kate and her teammate discussed the merits of the competition they'd just been through, and even what they'd (shock, shock) learned from participating. Diana wondered why her daughter's team had such a positive take on the event. It was the complete opposite of that of the boys who grumbled about the whole "worthless" experience.
Back at her seat, Diana struck up a conversation with a woman whose kid was from one of the other schools.
"Wasn't this great? Did your kid's team enjoy the competition as much as my daughter's did?" Diana asked.
"No, and I can't believe why they would. Too much work, and the prize was crappy."
"What?" Diana was astonished.
"My kids hated it. The teachers were too strict, and it cost a fortune. I can tell you how much money I had to spend on all those photographs, not to mention all the days I spent putting them into that PowerPoint."
"Really?" Diana said. "Our kids made their own slides."
"Oh . . . then they probably didn't win. And you want to know something else?" The mom leaned over and whispered in Diana's ear, "Those judges were definitely racist." Diana shook her head and buried her nose in a book.
The plane landed an hour later, and everyone made their way down through the terminal. As they approached the baggage claim area, Diana began to hear some rather unusual noises: the unmistakable sounds of cheering, whistling, and clapping. She figured it had to be a group of parents waiting to meet the winning teams, and thought to herself, How nice! It took several minutes to get through the maze of doors and down escalators, and that whole time the cheering sounds never stopped. This had to be some celebration. In fact, there was so much noise going on, she assumed that the parents brought a school band to play for the champion team.
But when Diana and her group finally reached the baggage claim area, she was stunned. It wasn't a band making the noise at all, but five middle-aged moms dressed in some ragged-looking cheerleading costumes waving their pom-poms jumping up and down in close approximation to a pep rally routine they must have done on a football field some twenty years ago. Behind them there was a huge handmade sign that said, "Welcome Home! Terrific Job!" It was hilarious. It was wonderful. Diana beamed from ear to ear. She loved it. How great!
At first some of the kids were stunned, but gradually moms and kids ran toward each other and started hugging as the whole bunch of them made their way to the carousel and waited for the bags to come up. Then an amazing thing happened. Diana saw the woman sitting next to her on the plane standing alongside the two boys who'd been sitting across from her daughter and complaining so bitterly about the whole competition. Each of the boys was now wearing a large first-place gold medallion strung around his neck on a red-and-white ribbon.
"Oh my gosh," Diana said to herself, "those boys weren't the losers—they were the winners!1'
Then she saw the kids still hugging the moms dressed as cheerleaders, and none of them were wearing any medals.
"Do you know those kids over there with the cheerleaders?"
"Sure—they're from Glenview Middle School."
"How did they do?"
"They only tell us if we're in the top three, so I know they didn't win. But aren't they fun, Mom?"
Kate's mom put her arm around her daughter and gave her a big kiss. "You're pretty great, Kate. I'm so glad you're mine."
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