The conga line snakes around the arena. Four hundred fifty kids from 24 countries on five continents. We are in Tokyo. The children are between nine and 17 years old and we are at the end of three days of competition at the Asian Open FIRST LEGO League tournament. The kids are from Peru and Brazil; a bunch from the US, Canada and Mexico; five from China; teams from Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea; many from Western Europe - France, Spain, Germany, Holland, all the Scandinavian countries; and Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia. We were disappointed to hear the two teams from Israel had to cancel at the last minutewe could have solved the Middle East in those three days.
I was asked to be one of four referees - the other three were Japanese college students, only one of whom spoke English. Yikes! I've never been a referee and didn't really know the game well enough, especially in such an intense competitive environment - sort of like being asked to umpire your first game in the World Series. But they needed an English speaker. I spent part of the 14 hour plane ride studying and then raced around on the practice day getting all the rules straight, relying a lot on Tomo, the English speaking student, who ended up being my ref partner throughout the tournament - thank goodness - after I made sure to recruit some of the Europeans to join us. It turned out many of them were in my boat - helping organize and run tournaments but never having time to learn the intricacies of the game.
This year's theme was energy - the Power Puzzle - and teams also have to do research on solving the energy crisis and do a presentation in front of a panel of judges. So, things were a bit chaotic and on the first day we didn't get out until 8 p.m.. Later that night a group of us gathered in the lobby going over the rules until 11 PM. I marveled at the fact that here are adults spending hours working on this stuff and taking it so very seriously to make sure it goes ok for the kids. But that is what working with FIRST robotics is all about.
The refereeing went pretty well, though there were kids from two Chinese teams pretty mad at Tomo and me for some of our rulings. One of the kids spent a half hour arguing with me and I told him he should be a lawyer.
The next day all the kids came over to take pictures. Having this kind of contact with kids after so long an absence was the great benefit of the trip. It is the major thing I miss about teaching.
We had two contrasting NYC middle schools - one public school (Herman Ritter) from the South Bronx and the other a private school (Little Red School House) from Manhattan where the kids raised $1200 in bake sales to assist the Ritter kids in getting to Japan. Ritter returned the favor by taking Little Red to dinner in Tokyo, the idea of Bronx FLL organizer Gary Israel (my roomie) who has been instrumental in promoting the Ritter kids.
This trip turned into a unique opportunity to interact with a great variety of adults and children from all over the world. I was fortunate in having Marcio Noguchi as a traveling companion. Marcio, of Japanese descent but born and raised in Brazil, lived in Japan for nine years. He now works for Credit Suisse in New York, so he brings a perspective of three continents to the table. We spent a lot of time together walking miles around Tokyo, so I got some great insights, illuminated after a sampling of sake at one restaurant. Afterwards, we went staggering - er - looking for ice cream and not finding a place, ended up at an all night McDonalds for shakes. It is a five story vertical place with stools at counters where some people spend many hours studying. Marcio left his motorcycle in my driveway and some of my neighbors were concerned that I was going through some kind of phase.
Back to Earth Day in Rockaway
The remarkable Jeanne Dupont, who heads the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance and organized the secondannual Earth Day on May 3 (two days after I returned) asked me to set up a display of the Power Puzzle for the event. (Native Rockawayite Bob Woods from LEGO Education also had a display on building solar cars.) Despite somewhat iffy weather conditions, we were visited by some of the local schools that expressed an interest in FLL robotics for next year, and I hope to be able to assist them. Registration for Climate Connections, the next school year's theme, is already open. FLL is not just for schools, but also for clubs and neighborhood teams. We even had a NYC Parks Department Team from Staten Island this year. Contact me if interested.
Goin' more local
I retired six years ago because I wanted to have the time to do other things. I had been in a pretty cushy job for the previous four years in computer support and didn't feel the need to go, other than time was a-wasting.
FIRST robotics was the first thing I did and have been handling registration and team recruitment ever since. I also have been deeply involved in educational and union issues and other activities, mostly Manhattan based.
In the past year or two I have been getting more involved in local activities in Rockaway. I've been doing a lot of video work along with my friend Mark Rosenhaft (NorMark Film). Last night I attended my first local Planning Commission meeting, videotaping with filmmaker Jennifer Callahan for the upcoming "Bungalows of Rockaway." The major issue was the sometimes controversial re-zoning plan. In a very crowded meeting, there were lots of illuminating things going on, with some East/West Rockaway fault lines showing their cracks.
It would be beneficial for more people to find ways to work together. A group of Manhattanites have become part of the east end community as bungalow owners and that adds an interesting dynamic that bears watching. Mark and I spent a year as co-producers, editors and cinematographers on "Dispatch," a film that will be shown at the upcoming Rockaway Literary Arts and Film Festival. That experience made me more aware of local events in which it is worth getting involved in.
We recently interviewed The Wave's Howard Schwach for a segment on Manhattan Neighborhood Network. When I showed it to the group in which I am working, with, one of the people said, "I did the interview with him for Channel 4 when the plane crashed in Rockaway." She is Rita Satz, who worked as a producer on the Today Show and is now retired. She has roots in Rockaway and is interested in producing the segment on Schwach.
Through the "Dispatch" film, I met Rockaway Theatre Company's John Gilleece who played a role in the film. John said RTC was looking for a videographer to tape the shows. I taped every show last year, sometimes twice. And I saw them gain when I worked on making the DVD's. I could have watched them ten times. Seeing the shows from the booth and through a lens provides a unique perspective. Not a bad moment in any of them. Great acting, sets, spirit. There's nothing not to like.
Having taught, my favorites are the shows with kids. Last year's "Oliver" blew me away, not only for the quality of the show but for the way the kids were treated and how they responded. In addition to everything else, RTC does some remarkable teaching.
I've been around the "Annie" production from the first auditions back in January and never fail to be amazed at the kids and the adults working with them, especially co-directors Kathy Valentine and Frank Caiati. I need another column to describe the work Kathy and Frank do. (They also help paint the scenery.) They help create some of the remarkable spirit and energy that infuses the Rockaway Theatre Company, where everyone - kids, parents, adult actors, etc. pitch in, from cleaning the theater to selling snacks during intermission. How such a small geographical area can nurture so much talent is astounding.
I can testify that Frank is a remarkable teacher, having recently completed an acting class with him. And he is also a great actor. The kids are lucky to have him around, at least until he makes it big on Broadway or in film.
I saw "Annie" with a large group of friends last Saturday, some first-time RTC-goers. They will be back. I went back on Sunday to tape it and am going back this weekend to tape it again. I won't be bored for an instant.