Full Disclosure: Revenge of the Nerds

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Odyssey of the Mind World Finals. Credit: Susan Gelvin

I am not a fan of putting labels on people.

However, after watching all eight seasons of “Games of Thrones,” I see how some carry weight. I, Susan of House Gelvin, First of Her Name, Breaker of Appliances and Protector of Retail Shopping, could get used to this kind of name-calling.

The label I particularly dislike is ‘nerd.’ Yet I am surrounded by many self-proclaimed nerds who wear the label as a badge of honor. To me, the term insults those who are dedicated to intellectual pursuits. Many of the nerds I know do not lack in social graces, or the attention of the opposite sex, or even in athletic abilities—they are academically confident and have fully embraced the label. Proudly, I am the daughter of a nerd, the wife of a nerd and friends with many a nerd—which, I guess, makes me one as well. 

Because our rich nerd heritage, or ‘nerditage,’ it was only a matter of time before my daughter decided to unleash her inner brainiac. Four years ago, she bee-lined for New Canaan’s branch of Odyssey of the Mind, where she found “her people.” 

I had no idea what the organization was about.

However, the one thing that got me on board was the hard and fast rule that parent involvement was strictly and absolutely forbidden. Imagine that, people: no parental involvement. None. I could sit back and coast in cruise control while the Odyssey of the Mind team, guided by a saint-coach, embarked on creative and competitive problem solving. 

The team of teen intellectuals toils for hours each week in our coach’s basement, where they are given free rein to build, create, experiment and destroy—not necessarily in that order. There is no shortage of glue guns, paint, cardboard, bubble wrap and toxic fumes, while the kids find a way to work together and get past the age-old boy-girl conundrum. 

It takes a very special person to manage this kind of controlled chaos. Our coach is a New Canaan mom, who also has a full-time career outside the home, and has more patience than a pack of monks. Did I mention, she was also a saint?

This year, four teams from New Canaan advanced from the state competition to the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals which was held in ex-o-tic … wait for it … East Lansing, Michigan.

The kids were ecstatic to attend what is affectionately known as ‘The Nerd Olympics.’ I, on the other hand, was not as enthused about spending Memorial Day weekend with hoards of adolescent intellectuals. However, as a team-player, I am willing to help my kid chase down her dream of nerd world domination.

Having gone to “World’s” two years ago with the same group, I had intense flashbacks, which can only be compared to those of a really bad acid trip. I vividly recall sitting through the opening ceremony while a kid exuberantly blew a tuba into my ear throughout the evening. 

My hearing has not been the same since. 

The arena was packed with flashing LED light headdresses, wands, hats, vests and jackets. If you could stick a flashing light on something wearable, it was there and in full effect. Truly remarkable was that I did not experience any LED-induced seizures—not one. (I may have to donate my body to science now.) 

Despite all that, the competition attracts the cream of the crop from, not only New Canaan, but National Teams from China, South Korea, Japan, and the ultimate fan favorite, Poland. 

Because I am a seasoned veteran, I attended this year’s World Finals with a game plan: Avoid as many ceremonies as possible and keep a getaway car ‘at the ready’ to leave campus when a flashback was triggered. Surprisingly, this year, I hardly rolled an eye or snickered under my breath. I was motivated to be “my best self” by the New Canaan contingent, which was up against very tough odds. Our mini mind gladiators performed better than ever. The team was calm, poised and totally unrattled by the super intense competitors around them. These kids just owned their work and put on a show. Even though the teams from New Canaan did not come out World Champions, or even close for that matter, they left proud and fulfilled. 

The teams returned home inspired by the creativity and engineering prowess of their competitors, without a single microchip on their shoulders. Even though (naturally) I have to give some non-CT teams the side-eye, who definitely overlooked the “no parent involvement” rule, but that’s just me, keepin’-it-real.

 Since I have time on my hands, I will probably spearhead an anti-doping league equivalent to police the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals, just to keep things on the up-and-up. However, while I am busy with my taskforce, our New Canaan Odyssey teams will surely go back to their respective work rooms and prepare for next year’s Nerd Olympics and get their ultimate revenge, fair and square.

8 thoughts on “Full Disclosure: Revenge of the Nerds

  1. Thanks for this great piece, Susan! Odyssey of the Mind is a wonderful, activity for kids who are makers, do-ers, thinkers, and tinkerers!

    My two children participated for a combined 11 years plus my college student has judged for 2 more. The growth and creativity that resulted from their experiences was amazing, and the “no outside assistance” requirement gave them confidence and skills that they take with them as young adults.

    New Canaan has had OM teams from all grades 3-12; look for the introductory meetings at Saxe in September when teams are forming. At other schools, ask around to learn more about this wonderful program. http://ctom.org/

  2. Scrolling through facebook I noticed the arena. While most people would think, ah, a sports game or concert, I am immediately taken aback to the flag parade, the light show, the announcer who seemed to speak a million different languages. After reading your piece, I immediately forwarded it to both my parents, because it just rings so true. In the past decade I’ve been a competitor, a family spectator, and a judge of Odyssey of the Mind. OM pretty much defined my middle school years, and as soon-to-be high school graduate, I’m a little worried it also defined my peak. I mean, come on, when is the next time I’m gonna be able to say I was a competitor in a world finals competition? But, going to world finals as a team member, and then as a family member, I definitely appreciate my parents for lugging my entire team across the country again, and again, and again. I am especially thankful to my mother who practically gave her entire life to the “sport” as our coach, and to my father who dealt with the piles of trash that collected in our basement (some of which is still there, waiting to be donated to a team if anyone wants it!) Anyway, as much as East Lancing, MI/Ames IA is scarring to you, if your daughter is anything like me, she’ll gratefully look back on her time in OM as one where she’s made lasting friendships, and learned teamwork, problem solving and networking skills which will last a lifetime.

  3. What a wonderful article – and a wonderful organization. Our family was very sorry to only learn about Odyssey during my daughter’s Senior Year!

  4. Polska! Polska! Yes, I am familiar with the Polish World (Finals) dominance. I just wanted to say I’m proud of New Canaan OM parents for generally restraining ourselves and adhering to the “no outside assistance” rule. You might think New Canaan parents could be tempted to transgress on the interfering-parent front, but in Odyssey of the Mind we are relatively clean in world competition. This is wonderful for the kids who do OM. It is the whole point of the program. Go New Canaan parents!

  5. First. I am loving the love fest with the Meli family here. A mother can only hope to hear a thank you like that! Well done Anna!
    Your article has just given me my own flashbacks and reminded me how much my nerdiest nerd loved OM. I celebrate You, your nerdy kids, and I only Hope that I am One of the nerd friends you speak of! Great memories susan!

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