The Trees

Describe a time when you experienced failure.

It was an excellent idea in theory—the fishing wire would be released from some unknown mechanism, invisible to the audience, and the paint strip leaves would fall, revealed the bare, jagged-looking trees that were supposed to make up our creative scene change. But the Odyssey of the Mind tournament was fast approaching. As I stared at the mess of bending cardboard, paint strips, and knotted blue fishing wire for which I was responsible, I was forced to admit that the reality of these trees was far from what my team and I had envisioned.

Odyssey of the Mind, perhaps best described as the sport of intellectuals, artists, and engineers, is a creative problem-solving program in which teams of five to seven students create 8-minute performances that fulfill various requirements—for example, a character that communicates silently, a moving set piece, or in this case, a creative scene change. Outside assistance is forbidden and the restrictive budget encourages the use of trash items and other unconventional materials. Since my first year of OM in the fourth grade, I have developed teamwork, resourcefulness, and divergent thinking. I have found confidence; I have learned to plan carefully, discuss whenever possible, and pay attention to detail. But as I sat hopelessly gluing slabs of cardboard to these dismal-looking trees that refused to stand up, it seemed the only things distinguishing me from my fourth grade self were a few inches in height and a little mascara.

I scrapped and restarted the project three times before finally asking my teammates to intervene. Everyone stepped away from their projects and gathered around the heap of hot glue, string, and decaying cardboard that I’d been trying to pass off as trees.

“Alright,” Sam said, taking a deep breath. “How are we going to fix this?”

We spent the rest of that meeting problem-solving, discussing without judging and offering solutions rather than criticisms. My teammates convinced me to abandon the string, and together, the five of us developed a simpler, more effective method for the dropping of the leaves and agreed to cover the sad-looking cardboard with the inside of coffee sleeves. By the time the tournament rolled around, the trees were functional—subpar, but functional.

As we entered the staging area the day of the tournament—my face covered in smeared eyeliner and my lips lined in black—I took one last look at the failure that was these trees, and I was reminded of the things I love most about OM. I was reminded of the need for teamwork, of my team’s unique ability to disagree productively in a way that strengthens rather than damages a friendship. I am reminded that there are infinite solutions, and that I need not get hung up on one. These trees reminded me of my own constant growth as a result of OM, from a timid child refusing to speak to a confident young adult.

I took these thoughts with me as I stepped into the performance area and took on the role of the angry villain, shouting angry soliloquies into the faces of the judges. Like these trees, I was imperfect, but I was infinitely better than I was when I had started.

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