Ben’s Team Wins the Woodbury Math Olympics!

I can not be more proud of my son, Benjamin (and his team), for winning the 2013 Math Olympics!!

Ben Cotton's Team Wins Math Olympics

What a week it was getting ready for the competition!  We learned new things and practiced a LOT!

If you want the “short” version of this, I would direct you to Ben’s own website, where the happy, politically correct version of this event is given!

Getting Ready

What was the point of all these computers anyway?

In trying to get ready, as a parent, I was amazed to find out that judging from Amazon.com user ratings, there doesn’t seem to be even ONE “very good” “best” computer program which helps kids learn math!  How does that work?  How is there NOT some really good program to help 3rd graders (or 4th, 5th, 6th, etc) learn / practice math?

The best “computerized” help we could find were a couple of “apps” for my Kindle Fire.  Both of these were very good “flash card” style programs.  They did not, however, help us practice “solving” “problems”.  Neither of these apps really prepared Ben for the competition, as more than a few of the questions was less about calculating things and more about remembering definitions and concepts and deciphering tricky questions.

I’m not listing these apps here because I’m thinking that in a couple of years they will no longer be viable or there will be something better (hopefully!).

Arriving at The Woodbury Math Olympics

As a father, and I’m not just saying this, it was an honor for Ben just to be one of the nine students in the whole city to participate in the competition.  As you will see, there was a time when I was quite prepared to lose.

First off, my hats off to the people running this “show” for the raw organization of it.  (not everything was “great”, as you will see)  It was quite a “deal” and indeed, they did a very good job making this “an event” that pretty much ran smoothly. I’m sure all the kids loved not being in class and getting to make a lot of noise.  I mean, I’m sure the kids loved “celebrating math”.

It’s been years since I was in that auditorium.  I don’t remember ever being on that stage during high school.  I do know that the last time I was on that stage was after I had graduated high school and I was a magician‘s backstage assistant for a charity show.

The roar of the crowd!

I confess to being intimidated by the support that the students from the other schools were showing for their teams.

They were loud!

Too bad loud noise doesn’t help you think more clearly!  West End was late to show up so it was like being a Patriots fan at the Eagles Stadium for a while.

Things started, but wanting to take some pictures, I was faced with what I would call a “theatrical arts disaster”.

Having been a professional photographer and working in theater and corporate presentations, I was very frustrated taking pictures when most of the lighting was from BEHIND everyone (onto the middle of the stage), basically making everyone shadows.  This is trivial, I know, but a never ending source of frustration and bad pictures.

The students, whose teachers, excuse me, didn’t seem to make much effort to control, were loud.  Not just in the beginning loud.  Not just when the scores were announced.  ALWAYS loud.  It’s one of those things where people talking quietly start to talk louder just to hear each other over everyone else talking and then everyone is talking loud.

I have to insert a disclaimer about the loud audience thing.  While my hearing is fine for most purposes, and I can still hear very faint sounds.  I’ve noticed, however, in my older years I have problems. I seem to have developed a problem of hearing clearly in places where a lot of people are talking.  So I will make it a point that my difficulties with the level of noise volume may have been only mine.

The presenter of the Math Olympics, a very nice teacher, Ms. Tobey Realley, had technical problems controlling the feedback on her microphone and at times not being heard at all due to having to turn its volume down so much.

I’m guessing the problem was that she had to stand on the floor in front of the speakers rather than be on the stage, which would have placed her behind the speakers.  There I go again.

With all of the disruption and distraction, I’m glad I practiced with Ben with the TV on and with the rest of us Cottons talking in order to prepare him for just such distractions.  That was a “performance trick” I learned while practicing magic tricks.

The Competition Begins!

Our team had a rough start.  The team from Evergreen, whose school was voicing the loudest support for, started out with perfect scores in the first few questions.  Walnut Street, as well, was very intimidating.  We, on the other hand, stumbled early on. I honestly started to figure we’d lose.  I grew an attitude of pride just for having gotten that far and I was fine with that.

Camera Troubles

Canon Powershot SX10isI like my camera, I really do, but damn it, what a pain in the ass.

First thing, on the memory card, there’s a little slider that “locks” the card from writing to it.  This little thing slides VERY easily.  I turn the camera on and try to take a picture – sorry!  Fortunately, I’ve done this before and the fix was easy enough.

Then… what is the point of “auto focus” when it’s constantly auto-adjusting?  I’ll take my old 35mm manual focus lenses.  Who minds focusing that much to begin with?  My camera has a “manual focus” option, but there’s no way I’d be able to spin this tiny little wheel on my Canon digital camera to get a responsive, positive control on things.  I LIKE focusing!  I guess that will be my next camera.

Then there was the diopter adjustment.  That’s the very tiny dial beside the eyepiece which adjusts the viewfinder for those who need glasses.  I need that.  The problem is that if you BREATH on it, it goes out of adjustment and until you fiddle with it you don’t know if the camera is out of focus or just this tiny little dial.

So I was trying to take pictures and the competition got on to be about the 6th of 10 questions.  After our rough start, I was losing hope of winning, and all my attention was turned to getting this camera to work.

At this point the only “win” I wanted was some decent pictures, and that wasn’t working out that well.

Then, Carol nudges me. HARD.

Whaaa?  I looked around the stage.  I thought maybe a kid (like Ben) was doing something embarrassing like picking their nose.  I finally asked her what it was.  Carol, who was actually paying attention, said that our team had a chance of winning.  It was like… “WHAT?

Things started moving very quickly and it was hard to figure out what was going on.  Now, Georgia is the very pretty 5th grader in the picture above who was on Ben’s team. Georgia should take up playing poker, however, because it was impossible to determine when she got a question right or wrong.  The 4th grader, Seth, was easier to read, but not so much every time.  So I was having trouble following how well we were doing.

Then came a couple of questions that stumped ME.  The first was one of those “area versus perimeter” problems.

The parent sitting in front of me also guessed wrong, guessing it was a trick question and the answer was actually two answers, “A & D”.  Hell, I thought she was right.  So, starting to get more confused, I even blew another question, not knowing that a “square” was classified as a “parallelogram” (and what week goes by when I’m not asked to remember that?  Glad to see they’re testing these kids on stuff they really need to know!)

But then… while I’m still struggling with my camera, like with every picture, the questions end.  They then started to add up the scores.

Understand, this was the time when I REALLY wanted my camera to work, so my attention was still strongly divided.

You know the end of the story so I can reveal something.

At the time, I was reminded of two scenes out of movies I love.  The first one was out of the movie “October Sky“, a true story where (SPOILER) the protagonist was a student who was in an auditorium to find out if he won the student science contest, only so distracted by other things to be completely surprised to find out he did!

Teri Garr in The Black Stallion

The other movie, and this was a surprise even to me to think of it, was The Black Stallion (SPOILER) where the protagonist’s mother, played by Teri Garr, was completely surprised that her boy actually won the race.

Both movies are highly recommended, even though The Black Stallion is not available in HD/Blu-Ray, and so even though they used to show the hell out of it in the past, it isn’t being shown on TV that much anymore.

For me, the whole thing was practically surrealistic to win.  I honestly didn’t feel cool with celebrating too much as I didn’t want to seem like I was “rubbing it in”.

But I couldn’t believe that, among the nine third grade classes in the city, figure 180 kids, Ben was the one to win.  Of all of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades, only three kids won, and Ben was one of them.

I am very comfortable in saying that I think the win had a lot to do with luck.

I believe he’s special in many ways, but not that more special in math.  Ben isn’t that much smarter than the kids who didn’t win.  Indeed, the luck could have easily gone the other way.  Nate, for example, didn’t make the semi-final competition for having messed up on only one test during the year.

But we Won!

So here comes the glory!  A new car!  The parade!  The TV crew!  The trophy!  The certificate! The picture in the newspaper! The picture on the school website! The $5 coupon for Toys ‘R Us!

Uhh.  Not really.

But, looking at our local paper the next day, I get to see what’s really important in South Jersey – The NFL Draft!!  Hey!  At least we have our priorities straight!