The road was long and had lots of bumps and pitfalls. Many hours were spent deep in discussion during the planning phase.
Hours were spent on writing lines for a script, choosing a song, deciding how to perform it, writing new words and practicing it over and over and over.
Hours and hours were spent cutting, drilling, building, painting, decorating, re-decorating, attaching and re-attaching scenery and props. Ideas flowed - some succeeded, some failed. With every success, a small celebration. With every failure, a renewed resolve to find a solution.
This is how it was for the Odyssey of the Mind team from St. John Neumann Regional Academy. The team performed in the "To Be Or Not To Be," Division 1 category. Team members were Francesca Daniele, Leo Daverio, Zola Daverio, Jaiden Cioffi, Lydia Nemeth, Erin Reilly and Francesca Urbina, who were coached by Vanessa Daniele, Mark Nemeth and myself.
And the hard work and stick-to-itness over the school year paid off - our OM team blasted out of the gate with engines revved and ready to go.
They earned first place at both the regional and then the state competition, qualifying them to move on to the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals from May 23 to 26 - a tremendous achievement, especially given that more than half of the team members were new to OM this year.
What a feeling to know that all their hard work, sweat and even a few tears of frustration had caused their dreams to materialize into something solid, tangible and exciting. We did it - we were going to Worlds!
For elementary-age kids, being among 8,000 OMers and coaches, and arriving en masse to a big college campus is thrilling.
Opening Ceremonies were held on the evening of the first day, Wednesday, and the excitement began.
It was there, sitting high inside the coliseum among OMers from 33 states and 15 countries, with an estimated crowd of 10,000 to 13,000 spectators cheering and waving their state and country flags, that one really got a sense for the grand scale of Odyssey of the Mind.
And what celebration would be complete without random blasts from a vuvuzela? All the countries and states were announced, and we cheered the loudest for Pennsylvania. It was a noisy spectacle.
Thursday, the pin trading began, and continued through the week.
For some, pin trading at OM World Finals is like an addicting drug - some kids (my son included) had to be dragged away from the action (wherever a group of OMers gathered) to be reminded to eat meals and sleep.
Each state and country has its own set of pins, and they are different each year. Serious pin collectors scope out their personal favorites, and attempt to obtain entire sets to fill souvenir towels, hats, or, in some cases, binders full of pins.
And it's not just kids trading pins, lots of adults enjoy it, too.
Last year, the most sought-after pin sets were the Ben and Jerry's set from Vermont, the Sock Monkey set and the Angry Birds set. This year's hot pin sets were the Avengers set and the Hunger Games set, and a set that when all the pins were properly arranged formed the Canadian maple leaf.
But each pin trader has his own agenda, likes and dislikes. To each his own. One of our team members, for instance, had a goal of getting a pin from each country represented at Worlds.
Pin trading gives everybody the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, from different states and from other countries. And that's what makes trading so much fun.
Our team worked a booth at the Creativity Festival, held in the university's field house. At the Creativity Festival, each state has its own booth, and some sort of arcade-style game they dreamed up for the kids to play, just for fun.
Yet another opportunity for mingling and meeting OMers from different places. There were crafts, face painting and even a clown constructing balloon animal hats. There was a magic show and an exhibit of Willard Wigan's microscopic sculptures - set on the heads of pins or inside the eyes of sewing needles. Seriously cool.
Thursday evening, we unloaded our props and scenery from the truck that had hauled it all 17 hours from Williamsport, and brought it into the large, chaotic room that housed all the props and scenery for all the teams competing in our problem and division.
The team checked it all for damage, performed the necessary repairs and then did some rehearsing before calling it a day. The other two coaches and I deemed them ready.
The team performed their skit that Friday morning flawlessly, and made us very proud. Once we received their scores, we gave the team the go-ahead to perform a most beloved OM Worlds ritual: tossing their hard work into the Dumpster.
You read that correctly.
Some teams smash it, some teams stomp on it, some bash it with a hammer. It's cathartic. It's fun. And since the truck that brought it to Iowa was a one-way ticket, it wasn't coming home. We salvaged anything of use from it first (because we coaches are a frugal, waste-not sort) and then let the team do their worst. They enjoyed it very much.
Now, all that was left to the competition for our team was their spontaneous problem on Saturday morning.
Because nobody but the judges know what type of spontaneous problem will be given (a verbal problem, a hands-on verbal problem or a hands-on problem) the team had to practice all three types, just in case.
Only five of the seven team members are permitted to attempt to solve the spontaneous problem, so the coaches helped the team decide who would participate on which type of problem. It was a tough call, as each member has their own strengths and weaknesses.
Saturday morning, the team got an early start, practiced some more problems, then did a few calisthenics (for fun) in the quad while they waited their turn for the spontaneous problem competition. The other coaches, parents and fans stood outside the doors, waiting for the team to emerge and showered them with applause and Silly String when they came out of the building.
We could tell from the dejected looks on their faces that something was very wrong, but because of the very secret nature of the spontaneous competition, we were unable to learn the details until much later.
The teams are forbidden to discuss anything about the spontaneous problem until after all the teams have competed - to avoid giving any team an unfair advantage.
It turns out, the Division I teams were given a hands-on problem, being asked to move rings and pegs from a board using objects given to them, and not crossing a line on the floor. Their attempt to solve the puzzle before the time limit failed - and they knew they earned only a few measly points.
They were terribly dejected. But, we reminded them: that's the beauty of this competition - sometimes even what seems like a great idea fails. The key is not to give up, because sometimes the most absurd ideas are wildly successful.
Unfortunately for my team, that wasn't the case this time.
We spent the afternoon that day at a local pool, washing away the kids' troubles and sliding down the water slides dozens of times until their sadness turned to smiles. We had to practically drag them out of the Lazy River to race back to the dorm, eat dinner and get to the awards ceremony, but it was worth it. They needed to blow off steam, and what better way than to jump into a cool pool?
The awards ceremony was exciting, but the team left empty-handed this year.
Though they were dejected at having placed 12th in their division and problem, we did remind them that they had competed against the best in the world, among 50 other teams, and that's not too shabby.
Turns out, they had the second-highest score in the long-term problem, which raised their spirits some. Their long-term solution was pretty awesome.
In all, the OM World Finals experience was tremendous.
We were grateful for the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the excitement and fun and hope to be at the next World Finals doing it all over again in 2013.
Congratulations to all the OM teams that competed this year - here's hoping even more teams form and join the quest for creative problem-solvers.
Odyssey of the Mind makes solving problems fun.