Quality of Academic Decathlon kids bodes well for our future - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Education News

Quality of Academic Decathlon kids bodes well for our future

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Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at jimripleyaz@gmail.com.

Posted: Tuesday, February 7, 2012 3:48 pm | Updated: 9:17 pm, Tue Feb 7, 2012.

I have a bone to pick with Ray Rafford.

Last Friday evening, he introduced me to nine of the East Valley's brightest, most engaging kids, but he would only let me visit with each of them for eight minutes. Eight minutes!

Is that any way to treat someone who stepped forward when he called looking for volunteers to be judges in the regional competition for this year's Arizona Academic Decathlon?

Next time I'm going to negotiate better terms.

These high-schoolers are fascinating. I want more one-on-one time. I want to know more about them. I want to reassure those who are unsure of themselves. I want to share some of my experiences with those who are cocksure. I want the opportunity to explore more fully what they've learned about the world. And here and there I might offer a contrarian point of view.

Don't get me wrong, Rafford is one of the good guys. I know because my wife was a colleague of his for several years.

He's a 72-year-old educator who retired nearly 10 years ago, but either Mesa Unified School District couldn't get along without him or he couldn't stay away or maybe both.

As a part-time employee, he has been in charge of running four of the last six competitions in Region IV of the Arizona Academic Decathlon. The region overlaps the East Valley, and, according to Rafford, is the most competitive of the state's four regions.

That can only mean our East Valley kids are smarter than the others or at least better schooled.

I was one of 54 judges assigned to the interview category. Altogether Rafford had to come up with close to 200 volunteers for the two days of competition staged at Brimhall Junior High.

Mine was just a small part in a big operation.

But it was right up my alley.

Two other volunteers and myself were assigned a room, given a cheat sheet of questions, a score-card for each student, and shown a video on how we should behave.

Our interview sessions were to be a kind and gentle and brief series of mini-press conferences.

We had 10 minutes for each student. Eight minutes for introductions and questions. Two minutes for scoring.

We were to judge our contestants on such things as poise, appearance, politeness, communication skills and ability to think under fire.

Our cheat sheet contained questions designed to get the students to talk about themselves, such as, "Why should people like you?"

It also contained questions associated with this year's study theme as determined at the national Academic Decathlon level. The theme was called the "Age of Empire" and focused on the era of European colonization.

We could ask, for instance, "Would you have liked to live during the Age of Imperialism?" Or, "Which country treated the indigenous people best or worst?"

We could also ask questions that were sparked by the resumes they handed us.

I didn't have time to take extensive notes, but our nine contestants made such a strong impression that I can remember something about each of them.

It was clear all of them had read into Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and the stories of Belgium's brutal occupation in the Congo.

If there had been a vote, Belgium would have been voted the age's worst country on the planet.

More interesting to me was the mixed reviews that Britain received, particularly in terms of its occupation of India.

One contestant talked about the rail lines and roads that the British built in India, creating an infrastructure that helped a free India prosper.

She was the only contestant in our group to suggest that colonization wasn't all bad. Based on her name and features, I am guessing she is either from India or of Asian Indian heritage.

We weren't allowed to ask questions about ethnicity, but I did ask her if Mahatma Gandhi would have agreed with her assessment. She paused ever so slightly then drew, I thought, a sophisticated distinction between the social issues of British governance versus infrastructure development.

Another student, who told us his family had moved from India to America said he wanted to be a cardiologist in part because his younger brother once had a sometimes fatal heart defect. Surgery had healed his brother, but a lasting impression had shaped a dream.

I thought about my kind and caring cardiologist, Joseph Chatham, who also emigrated from the sub-continent. And I was thankful.

Another young woman talked a lot, maybe too much, about her shyness. She was red-haired and freckled as I had been at her age. Perhaps she, too, had been teased into shyness. I so wanted to tell her not to let her shyness turn into a crutch.

A tall, blonde student clearly wasn't lacking in self-confidence. I asked if she was forced to choose between her track activities and the school chorus which would she choose.

No hesitation, there. Track, because, she explained, she could see the return on her investment in time and effort.

She wasn't talking about improving her time on the 100-yard dash.

"I like to shop," she explained.

"Good for you ... and us," I thought. "This economy needs you."

Another contestant made me think when he was asked would he have rather lived in an imperialistic time. He said that he had read that the wealthiest man in the 19th century was not as well off as those of us of modest means today. The reason: electronics.

Got an Internet connection? The world is yours.

Another student reminded us that it wasn't just somewhere over there that colonies were formed and indigenous peoples suffered.

In America, we called it Manifest Destiny. A great country evolved, but at a price.

I asked one of my fellow judges, Dave Devine, what he got out of volunteering for the decathlon.

Devine, 70, retired from Boeing in Seattle and moved to Mesa.

Devine said he has been a decathlon volunteer for at least seven years.

"It's such a thrill to work with the young kids who are interested in furthering their perspective of the world," he told me.

Devine said he liked to see the kids rewarded for scholastic success, not just sports, and noted the competition demands that the contestants have a broad range of knowledge from economics to music.

"We get to see the kids all dressed up. It's so rewarding to see we have quality kids. You look around and say, ‘You know what, we're going to be OK.'"

• Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at jimripleyaz@gmail.com.

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