Is It Too Late

Describe a time you were challenged and how you responded to success or failure?

There was no way around it. I’d ruined the robot.

I knew it from the first bend in the aluminum. My teammates hadn’t noticed yet. When you’re in the middle of a robotics competition, there’s a lot to think about. Do the wire connections need re-tinning? How’s your battery life? Is the drive train holding up? Not to mention the hundreds of family members shouting from the arena seats. Or the other teams praying that your 15-inch-tall mechanical contender will lose a wheel or drop a bolt or fail to shoot a mini-basketball into a child-size hoop.

But I saw it—the cheap chassis straining each time the treads bounced over a steel ball bearing. It was seconds away from snapping. And then everyone else would notice too. My teammates would see it, the ones who elected me captain as a sophomore when our senior leader decided he’d rather spend the semester with beer kegs than band saws. The know-it-all freshman saw it, my rival who sneered at my decision to go with the lighter 1/32-inch aluminum frame when anyone with a brain would opt for the 1/16. My dad was watching from the stands, just like he watched me across the hood of his Nissan pick-up every Sunday morning while quizzing me on engine parts. My grandfather sat next to him, the man who sat with me for hours on his living floor when I was little, sifting through a bucket of scattered Legos and smiling, “What shall we build today?”

Despite all the drafting, drilling and pouring over rulebooks the size of physics texts, I knew that a high school robotics competition wasn’t a rocket launch. Scientific breakthroughs weren’t hanging in the balance. But engineering was my identity. I was never going to do a triple-half-gainer off the diving board like my little sister. I couldn’t throw a baseball through a brick wall like my all-star cousin. I was the kid who built things.

The metal snapped like a stick, and soon my pitiful little robot was dragging a 30-inch sheet of aluminum along the arena floor. My face reddened. I tried not to glance up at my family or over at my teammates. Maybe, I thought, it was time to sketch a new blueprint for myself. Maybe my best quality wasn’t my skill at soldering a gearbox. Maybe it’s my calm demeanor when the wires get crossed—a coolness under pressure that comes in handy when there are two minutes to the bell and I have three questions left on my English test. Maybe it’s guiding my teammates—the same mentoring role I play when I tutor middle schoolers in math. Maybe it’s the lessons I’ve learned from engineering—that it’s OK to go back to the drawing board.

There’d be another competition next year, another chance to get it right. Meanwhile, I wondered, was it too late to join the chess club?

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