“PowerPoint is a distraction”: The Shining Kids of Carl Hayden High

I’ve been busy and happy in private but in an incredible funk about the larger world over the last few weeks. Actually, I’ve welcomed the pressure, because it distracted me from whatever the malaise is that has been sifting through the news and blogs.

The feeling reminds me of “Two Cities,” my favorite poem by Mark Doty sometimes:

I had grown sick of human works,
which seemed to me a sum
and expression of failure: spoilers,

brutalizers of animals and one another,
self-absorbed until we couldn’t see
that we ruined, finally,

ourselves – what could we make?
An epidemic ran unhalted,
The ill circumscribed as worthless and unclean;

the promises of change seem hollow,
the poor and marginal hopelessly marginal,
endlessly poor. I saw no progress,

and the steeping ink of this perception
colored everything, until I felt surrounded
by weakness and limit, and my own energies

failed, or were failing, though I tried
not to think so. I awoke
in Manhattan, just after dawn…

And then something trips my attention.

Today it was in the current copy of Wired that I rescued from Middle Guy. It told a story that’s our story: Winds’ story, America’s story, humanity’s story:

On West Roosevelt Avenue, security guards, two squad cars, and a handful of cops watch teenagers file into the local high school. A sign reads: Carl Hayden Community High School: The Pride’s Inside.

There certainly isn’t a lot of pride on the outside. The school buildings are mostly drab, late ’50s-era boxes. The front lawn is nothing but brown scrub and patches of dirt. The class photos beside the principal’s office tell the story of the past four decades. In 1965, the students were nearly all white, wearing blazers, ties, and long skirts. Now the school is 92 percent Hispanic. Drooping, baggy jeans and XXXL hoodies are the norm.

The school PA system crackles, and an upbeat female voice fills the bustling linoleum-lined hallways. “Anger management class will begin in five minutes,” says the voice from the administration building. “All referrals must report immediately.”

Across campus, in a second-floor windowless room, four students huddle around an odd, 3-foot-tall frame constructed of PVC pipe. They have equipped it with propellers, cameras, lights, a laser, depth detectors, pumps, an underwater microphone, and an articulated pincer. At the top sits a black, waterproof briefcase containing a nest of hacked processors, minuscule fans, and LEDs. It’s a cheap but astoundingly functional underwater robot capable of recording sonar pings and retrieving objects 50 feet below the surface. The four teenagers who built it are all undocumented Mexican immigrants who came to this country through tunnels or hidden in the backseats of cars. They live in sheds and rooms without electricity. But over three days last summer, these kids from the desert proved they are among the smartest young underwater engineers in the country.

Go read the story about four kids given nothing but talent and the thinnest break, and how they walked through it. It is, in some way the manifestation of the uniquely human spirit: we make things.

Doty saw it:

The dawn was angling into the city,

A smoky, thumb-smudged gold. It struck
first a face, not human, terracotta,

on an office building’s intricate portico,
seeming to fire the material from within,
so that the skin was kindled,

glowing. And then I looked up: the ramparts
of Park Avenue were radiant, barbaric;
they were continuous with every city’s dream

of itself, the made world’s
angled assault on heaven.
The city was one splendidly lit idea -

These kids (with the help of their advisors, Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi – more about them later) make a remotely piloted submersible they name “Stinky” out of PVC pipe and salvaged electronics. “The made world’s angled assault on heaven,” indeed.

They built it – four high school students – and they beat MIT’s team.

Then Merrill leaned into the microphone and said that the ROV named Stinky had captured the design award.

“What did he just say?” Lorenzo asked.

“Oh my God!” Ledge shouted. “Stand up!”

Before they could sit down again, Merrill told them that they had won the technical writing award.

“Us illiterate people from the desert?” Lorenzo thought. He looked at Cristian, who had been responsible for a large part of the writing. Cristian was beaming. To his analytical mind, there was no possibility that his team – a bunch of ESL students – could produce a better written report than kids from one of the country’s top engineering schools.

They had just won two of the most important awards. All that was left was the grand prize. Cristian quickly calculated the probability of winning but couldn’t believe what he was coming up with. Ledge leaned across the table and grabbed Lorenzo’s shirt. “Lorenzo, if what I think is about to happen does happen, I do not, under any circumstances, want to hear you say the word ‘Hooters’ onstage.”

“And the overall winner for the Marine Technology ROV championship,” Merrill continued, looking up at the crowd, “goes to Carl Hayden High School of Phoenix, Arizona!”

Lorenzo threw his arms into the air, looked at Ledge, and silently mouthed the word “Hooters.”

Cameron and Ledge haven’t taken Lorenzo to Hooters, nor have they retired. They hope to see all four kids go to college before they quit teaching, which means they’re likely to keep working for a long time. Since the teenagers are undocumented, they don’t qualify for federal loans. And though they’ve lived in Arizona for an average of 11 years, they would still have to pay out-of-state tuition, which can be as much as three times the in-state cost. They can’t afford it.

I don’t want to debate immigration policy, or tuition. And I’ll probably delete any comments that do.

This post isn’t about the new barriers that their success unveiled – about the new mountain face that you see when you top the ridge, having climbed the last one.

This post is about the bottomless pool of human talent. And about the fact that it’s everywhere – sprouting up even when it’s not tended and nurtured as deeply as it should be in some places. People long to create, they long to make, they dream of improving the world. We just have to look, and be willing to see it. We need it. It’s this capital – the capital of imagination and work – that will sustain us and that we need to grow.

If we’re about anything at Winds of Change, I think we’re about that capital, about the spirit that creates, that restlessly looks for new paths – whether through the historic hatreds and distrust that we are all subject to as humans, the gridlock of modern interest-group politics, the problems of energy, of the environment, of poverty and oppression.

Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi did something unexpected to pull together that capital and nurture the spirit that makes it. I can’t imagine how good this must feel for them, and I’m kind of jealous because I don’t know that I’ll ever accomplish something as wonderful as they have done with this.

Wired, to their credit, has set up a scholarship fund for the kids.

Click here, and be generous.

I’ll close with Doty:

That city’s coherent only from this distance,

a fable, a Venice not merely
because it is built on water,
but because it is built,

even though it is the capital of inwardness,
built and erased and drawn again
as surely as Manhattan is:

liquid avenues, archives of all
we’ve imagined, our haunted, interior architecture
“Venice,” Nietzsche said,

“is a city of a hundred solitudes.”
New York is a city of ten million,
And my American Venice

– phantom boulevards rippling
and doubled in the dark – a city
of two hundred and fifty million

solitaires, the restless dreamers’
dreamed magnificence: our longing’s
troubled mirror, vaporous capitol.

*the quote is from the article. The team was asked why they didn’t have a Powerpoint deck for their technical presentation.

“PowerPoint is a distraction,” Cristian replied. “People use it when they don’t know what to say.”

22 thoughts on ““PowerPoint is a distraction”: The Shining Kids of Carl Hayden High”

  1. Wow, that Cristian kid is one seriously smart dude to know that already.

    bq. _The team was asked why they didn’t have a Powerpoint deck for their technical presentation. “PowerPoint is a distraction,” Cristian replied. “People use it when they don’t know what to say.”_

    Thanks for a great and inspiring story that captures a big part of what we’re all about here.

  2. Joe:

    Not so much smart as wise, in the the-Emperor-has-no-clothes sense. I say: These kids already have something that’s more precious than any college education. They have the knowledge that they are winners; they have excelled at something. May they build on this success, come what may.

    Nortius Maximus

  3. What a terrific story about high schoolers beating out MIT. I suspect I won’t be reading this in the Boston Globe. One of the few stories I’ve read in the past few days that’s lifted me up.
    I’d love to learn more about the teachers.

  4. bq. _”This post is about the bottomless pool of human talent. And about the fact that it’s everywhere – sprouting up even when it’s not tended and nurtured as deeply as it should be in some places.”_

    We all love the stories about beating the odds and the underdog championing the best of the elite or cream of the crop in what seems to be insurmountable odds. This story is more than just about that. It is about a hunger and fire that comes from within.

    Are the teachers at MIT any less capable? Are the students at MIT any less capable? I don’t think so. Is it complacency? Possibly. One excels when one realizes the potential benefits of doing so. I wish these students well and regardless of the odds against them concerning financial / legal issues I’ll submit that as long as the fire remains within they will accomplish what they want to without intervention.

    This is not a story of beating the odds. This is a story of the fire within and human spirit driving people to accomplish what they set out do.

  5. And these kids need to go to college why exactly?

    Given what I have seen recently of what passes for college education, this teachers seem to have given the kids all the education they need – there are plenty of engineers who became very well off without the distractions of college (I say this despite the fact that I graduated from an Ivy League school).

  6. I agree with Oscar in that if you go to college expecting to receive an education you’ll really be disappointed. All any institution can provide you with is a diploma, only then if you can keep the grades up and can afford the tuition and cost of textbooks.

  7. Amazing. BUT, one case where highschool students beat out a respectable MIT college students does not warrant obviating the need for a college education.

    College should teach you to learn how to learn by yourself, at the very least.

  8. I’m with Patrick on this one. I took a lot of useless “theory” classes as an English graduate student, but they were hardly wasted time. Precisely because I found them vile and useless, I concentrated on learning all I could about philosophy, language, and aesthetics in order to argue against the “theory” I was being fed in my classes. I now know far more than I would have had I not had those classes, however painful they were at the time.

  9. My mother taught at Carl Hayden High School from 1970 to 1994. When I was a teenager, some of her students were my friends. She watched the school change as described in the article. It was tough. Carl Hayden is a tough place. If there is a school shooting in Phoenix, it’s probably at Carl Hayden. It’s good to know that some of them are still in there trying.

  10. I’ve known the depth of human talent for a long time. When I took command of a battery in the Army, the sergeants pointed out one of the soldiers and explained that he was “dumb.” I watched him. He didn’t ever hesitate to try, he was eager to be given something to do or work at, and he was sort of slow, mentally. Slow, but careful. “Hmmmmmm,” thought I. I talked to the First Sergeant about him, and Top seemed delighted with what I wanted. We went out of our way to give him tough tasks. We gave him clear instructions, careful guidance, and got out of his way. That guy would work at what he was supposed to be doing, and make it perfect. He’d ask questions if something unexpected came up. All he wanted was to be told that he’d done a great job, which was generally true. Apparently, though, he’d rarely if ever heard such a thing. Then, he wanted the next task.

    I’d rather have 2 “dumb,” hard-working, careful people working for me, than 100 smart, lazy, sloppy ones.

  11. When they make it, they can look forward to the left punishing them for being successfull.

    I wonder if part of was helped by the fact they dont suffer the constant drumming of the white guilt trip that infects the elite schools.

    To these guys, I can indentify, I too, am a geek and built gear i was certain would teach many an engineer a lesson or two in how to make something reliable while still inexpensive.

    Today of course, just the 3-7,000 volt power supplies i built quite capable of poping the fuse out on the power pole —

    (did it twice, after the second show and tell with the lineman, he and a crew came out and replaced our 10,000 watt pole tranformer with a 25,000 watt pot)

    — is of the kind of thing that would bring in the swat team,, Janet Renos storm troopers would shell your house with incendary bombs.

    Probably just like these guys, I could not help but notice that understanding how the universe works to the extent that working devices create themselves in the brain is a rarity, that with few welcome exceptions, your surrounded by morons.

  12. Peyton

    Give me a “slow” guy … and with a few exceptions they can excell if you provide them with some basic tools .. even the atomic level of matter is not hard to grasp …

    Armed with the understanding that replaces magic with logic, the so called slow guy can often pass up the supposedly brighter peers at a speed that leaves them stunned by the shock wave.

  13. Patrick and Fred-
    “College should teach you to learn how to learn by yourself”. Well, I learned that in High School, and it seems these kids did as well. I was not saying that college was useless, but that it did not seem necessary for THESE kids.

    That is not to say they wouldn’t benefit, I learned a lot in college without going to classes. And some of my classes were a huge benefit. That doesn’t mean that a highly motivated kid NEEDS college.

  14. I’m married to a highly motivated non college guy. He is very successful, and its true that without college these kids can be too.

    That said, my husband has been turned away from good jobs for not having his slip of paper (only to go on and make more money anyways, but it is still always a bummer).

  15. In regard to the Wired Magazine article:
    All I have to say is that I go to Carl Hayden High School, and I was once in the robotics team. But I decided to quit after being treated as though I was less than the others on the team. After being on the team for 2 years and putting forth many hours of my time and effort, I was still not regarded as an important part of the team. Other students, who had been on the team for less time than me, and who had done virtually nothing for the team, were chosen over me to go to events and the national robotics competition. I believe I was treated less than, because of the fact that I am not of a Hispanic background. I think the teachers are trying to push the point that our school is “ghetto” and that there are mostly Hispanic students, so they don’t want a bunch of white people on the team and messing up their image. Another reason is that Fredi Lajvardi resents my sister because of her decision to leave the team, so he was taking that out on me as well. For some reason, the teachers who sponsor the team and the officers of the club cannot see me for me. Instead they see me as my sister’s younger sister, as a matter of fact, Dr. Allan Cameron has yet to learn my name, even after me being on the team for 2 years straight and being in his class for a whole year. Instead, he calls me (my sister’s name)’s little sister.
    The reason for writing this is just to inform you people that the 842 Falcon robotics team is not as great as everyone is making it out to be. I am proud of the team for all of its accomplishments throughout the past few years, but its racist and biased decisions are wrong and hurtful. In addition to this, the team has changed since I first joined. Now, all anyone can talk about is winning. Even thought the team may have won the second place award to the Chairman’s Award, I believe there were other teams who were more deserving. Team 842 is supposed to be all about spreading the word of science and technology, that is why they won the award, but at heart, they really aren’t. If anyone on the outside were to really see how it is in the club, its all about winning. They compete to win. I personally don’t even think that they care about spreading the word of science. They have a small main group of people that are even aloud to do anything with the robot, and surprise surprise, they are all male. Cristian was even quoted in our school news paper saying that the females of the team don’t really work on the robot, that they do paper work. This is true, but only because the males on the team wont let the girls anywhere near the robot. This isn’t what I would call spreading the word, when they keep the actual science and technology part down to a limited few.
    And just for the record, the neighborhood around our school isn’t that bad, and there is only one cop on school premises, which is common in any community high school in a big city such as Phoenix.

  16. This message is to Lodi. Lodi, I hear your side of the story and wonder what you are going to do. You are clearly hurt and angered — even bitter — and rightly so. BUT…will you rise above it? Will, you take the energy of hurt and channel it into the strength to overcome? That energy will propel YOU to be a winner… and there is NOTHING wrong with wanting to win! I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, but I was moved by your comments to encourage you to press through all this. Here’s a powerful quote to munch on: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do that. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.” — Anonymous

  17. I’m going to have to go with Lodi on this one. This team is exactly how she described it to be. I too was once on the Falcon Robotics Team and ended up quiting the team because of problems such as this. And to Mark, your right, there isn’t anything wrong with wanting to win, however, the way that this team went about it was the wrong way. I remember going to Dr. Cameron along with two of my close friends as a concerned student about what was going on in the club. We explained to him that what was going on inside the club was wrong and we didn’t think it was fair. You know what he said to us? These are his exact words,”It’s not about whats fair, it’s all about getting the money and that we win.” So as far as Phelps Dodge goes and some others such as Microchip, you are mentoring, giving money to and supporting the wrong team.

  18. I was on the the robotics team and I whole heartedly disagree with comment 18 and 20. The school is 98 percent Hispanic. The team can’t help but be Hispanic! Dr. Cameron and Mr. Lajvardi always try their best to meet the needs of all the team members.They have been great to me and every body on the team, as far as I can tell. I think the team deserves everthing they have earned,and the team has lost competitions inbetween winning and have handled it just fine. They have helped many kids go to college and on scholarship. This year alone I heard they are sending six kids on scholarship. They are doing a great job.They are a great team and I was glad to be a part of it. The neighborhood is that bad, all I have to say is remember the Subway shootings! Oh and sometimes there are two cop cars. I am a girl and I got to work on the robot. I don’t know who you two people that are upset are, but I just don’t see what you are talking about. Sorry.

  19. There are so many talented people out there but because of no financial possibilities they get pushed around and neglected for others that had the means to follow the courses of a college even if that doesn’t reflect their talent.

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