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School Stories

The time I won 2nd place in my state Robotics competition

Time: High School Junior Year: Spring Some high school in my state

Second place shouldn't be anything special. As some people would consider it, second place is often joked as being first loser in a competition. However, considering my own standards, second place is a really fucking big deal. Especially considering the sort of competition I was up against as well as the limitations and handicaps I had to deal with prior to the day of the competition. In any case, let this tale be proof that even a loser like myself is quite capable of achieving something beyond what I expect of myself. Even if this rare victory in my own life turned out to be insignificant in my future endeavors.

I have been doing robotics club since the semester prior in the fall. There were certainly other members that were in the club longer than I was so it's not like I was accustomed to the established group culture of the club to begin with. It didn't help that I also had to focus on marching band as a priority since my band director would be pissed at us if we even dared to miss an important competition or practice. Suffice to say, I didn't get to go to most of the meetings after school nor did I get to participate in some of the trips and early competitions leading up to the state competition. Not to mention, most of the club members hardly even knew me to begin with. I wasn't really friends with any of them (for as small as the club was). To be fair though, I did occasionally go to the club room on those days when my director wasn't sucking the time and life force out of my existence and especially once marching season was over. It was a nice place to do some homework or play with some robots and have them do cool things like make noises with their speakers, make them push objects around, or sometimes sumo wrestle the other members robots by attaching objects on them to make them look menacing and push robots off the table. I never had any serious intentions other than an interest in robotics and technology.

It was right around the following spring semester when our advisor told us we were going to participate in a state competition in march (right before spring break). Rather than work together as a club, we were allowed to have a teams of two so in a sense, we were competing against each other. Most of the other members were able to team up before I would but eventually, a girl (the only one in the club) asked me to be part of my team. She was someone of Philippine descendant but she wasn't anyone that I knew personally nor did I have any sort of attraction to her (and I highly doubt she had any attraction to me). Why she chose to team up with me especially since she knew the other guys more than me remains a mystery. She wasn't even a regular in afterschool club meetings but would occasionally show up (kind of like what I was doing in the fall semester).

The goal of this competition had two trials: A linear maze in which we would have to program to navigate via predetermined routes and sensors. Since the layout of this maze will be altered randomly to ensure it's not as simple as programming a simple path through this maze. The goal is to get through this maze in the quickest time possible in about three runs. Each run will have the maze altered so that the previous run will not be the same as the last. The other trial involves pushing golf balls into some holes in the quickest time possible without knocking them over the board. This trial has a focus on precision and speed. The scores of both trials will be combined for a total score which will be ranked to other teams from my high school as well as other schools in the state. Not all of the schools in my state are able to participate. Only those that did well in regional which is what my school club was able to accomplish in the fall (which I did not participate in).To make things fair, everyone will be using this prebuilt robot with all the sensors and motors required for these tasks. The challenge comes with programming the robot, something I (or my partner) had little to no experience in. I can't say for certain what the language was but from what I remember, it was similar to the C programming language, although a lot simpler in someways. While I had some basics down from those times when I would mess with the robots, it was usually on a smaller scale compared to what the tasks was required of this time.

At first, my partner and I would look blankly at our computer monitor, not realizing how to even begin writing out our program for this robot. The other members of my club seemed to have a work flow going and many of them already started figuring out methods to navigate this maze. The first day of programming was suffice to say, almost unproductive. I think I might have even dissuaded my partner from even trying because the next day she didn't show up. Apparently, she had some important work for another club that she had to focus on but I think that was more of an excuse for her just to give up early and not even bother trying. For the rest of the month, I was on my own in this struggle. I had no idea what to do next on the second day. I had some of the robots commands to move around but I was stuck with getting those fucking sensors to work. Every test run I would do would always end up in some sort of failure to detect an unexpected wall and the stupid thing would end up getting stuck around corners since I didn't know what I was even doing with all these numerical values. For whatever reason, I still had some sort of determination to get it all figured out so sometimes I would stay for hours in the club room trying to figure out the right angles, the right amount of inches I had to move the robot forward, and figuring out those damn sensors in order to at least get through the maze once. I would stay at the club figuring out how to get this thing working sometimes up till 8:00 pm (the latest my school would allow students to stay behind). Stay late after school wasn't new to me since I would involuntarily be kept behind for marching band practice though that was usually done outside. Something about being in school this late and often the only one left in the club room was rather strange to think about but it was also very peaceful in a sense that I could be on the school computers, figuring out how to program this robot I have little knowledge about. Normally, the staff didn't have an issue with cell phones or entertainment devices being used right as school was over but I opted not to bring any of those things when I stayed after school. My focus was entirely on programming.

To cut a long story short, this went on for the next couple of weeks prior to the competition. I didn't have any resources to get the robot to preform any of the tasks successfully. Trial and error was my method for figuring the issues with my program. Eventually, I was able to complete the first trial successfully and then the second trial much later. I was just glad to finally be able to get it done right at last, though I had no confidence regards to actually beating the other teams. It didn't help like I felt like I was playing catch up with the other teams in my school. They were already ahead days before I got my robot even working the way it should. By some dumb luck, when I did my final test runs for both trials, I had the fastest time out out of my entire high school. Even one of the other members were impressed and right after they began working on their code to see if they can cut some time off some of their runs. It is only a few days until the competition so there's probably some time for them to out preform me.

Finally on the day of the competition, our club had an excuse for us to not show up for our classes as we were bussed into one of the major metropolitan areas in our state. We each had our programs saved on a pen drive which would be inspected by our advisors and the competition judges. My code compared to some of my competitors was messy. It didn't even have comments on them like a proper program should have but it was good enough for the advisor and the judges. Once I was up for the trials, all of my runs turned out successful. I'd seen a lot of the other teams runs end up in disaster as many of the robots would fail to engage their sensors and run into walls or off the platform in the second trial. My 3rd run almost ended in disaster as it nearly nicked the edge of the maze corner but was able to reach the finish line in a rather impressive time. The second trial ended really well and even impressed some of the other teams watching when the time was announced for my runs. Was I really able get my program to run this well? I was more amazed that I was doing this well

What surprised me (as well as the other club members from my high school) was right when they had all the scores finalized and started announcing the first 3 places in the state ranks. First place, some other team from another school as expected. They had a really impressive time, a little bit quicker than my runs, but I didn't expect to hear "From (my high school), Team (redacted for privacy) with members (my name and my partner's name who wasn't even there) placed second!" Second place!!! How the fuck!?!!! All of my club members were cheering and celebrating. I was in shock. How did I do so well? All this time, I was assuming I was barely making it and yet somehow I managed to overcome not only my superiors in my club but also various other teams from other schools. Placing second isn't a high accomplishment for most people but considering my high school has never placed in the top three was a big fucking deal, For once, the forces that make the universe go completely against my own well being weren't kicking me in the balls for once.

My high school was rewarded a trophy for my victory, not as nice as first place but still a decent pot metal trophy none the less. My team mates praised my hard work and right after some victory pizza we were on the bus on the way back home. Once I got home, I told my mom about what I did and she was like "Why didn't you placed first? It's all those video games, you should have gone first." I didn't care for her bullshit remarks. Nothing will ever be good for her anyways. I could have earned a million dollars and she would still be upset that I didn't earn a trillion. Second place was more than enough to boost whatever moral I had left in me to consider doing something for my own future. Suffice to say, it didn't really do much in the long run. I am sure that 2nd place trophy is still in my schools club room. I often wonder if anyone actually made it first in state competition ever since and overtook my efforts. Although I was never friends with any of my club members, I must have made an impression on them somehow. If only they knew my fate after high school. Second place winner of that state competition is now stuck living with his mom as a college drop out, no friends, no allies, no lovers and a wage slave job that even high school dropouts wouldn't be exempt from doing. I guess in a sense, I was always first loser no matter what.

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