I spent seven years as a middle school Odyssey of the Mind Coach. For those not familiar with the program—the amazing competition, click here. But now as I write this, it has been four years since I relinquished my title. In some ways it feels like forever ago, like a piece of my history (and my heart) that’s long in the past. But in some ways, I still feel very much a part of its world and I wonder if I always will.
I owe so much to OotM and some might find that strange because I never participated in it as a student—even though the program was around when I was a student. My school didn’t offer it, and looking back now, I realize how much I would have loved it. I would have loved writing the scripts and creating the costumes, and I would have loved performing for the judges along side my friends. I’m very much a peacemaker and so if there were any squabbles between the bunch of us, I’m certain I would have tried to smooth things over. I would have love the adrenaline rush of being on stage and I would have loved winning, if we ever did! But more than anything, I would have loved being part of a team—a creative team. Maybe that’s why I loved coaching so much.
I sort of fell into coaching actually. When my daughter was in fourth grade, she and her friends wanted to form a team and try it. And so being the super involved parent that I was, I teamed up with another mom and we coached together. I have to admit, we floundered at first. We pretty much had no idea what we were doing and being a hands-off facilitator (like the rules require) to a group of seven strong-willed girls was no easy task. But it was wonderful to watch them learn to work together towards a common goal and create something out of nothing—to solve a complex task. There were definitely squabbles, there were oh so many tears, and there were tons and tons of laughs. But most of all, there was creativity and teamwork and problem solving…and it was amazing.
Those early years of coaching taught me that winning ribbons and trophies wasn’t the most important thing. If the girls were smiling, having fun, and creating things they were proud of, then it was worth every second. I eventually found my footing as a coach by the time my son and his friends formed a team of both boys and girls—and at that point, I coached the team on my own. For several years, the same core group of kids were together and for the first time, I really understood my role as a coach. Sure it was my job to provide snacks and a place to meet, and to help foster a creative environment-one that encourages kids to question. And it was also my job to NOT offer outside assistant when it came to solving the problem. But my real role as a coach was to bring out the best in the kids so that they could flourish individually and as a part of the team.
I never anticipated the success my fifth grade team from Rogers Middle School would have in 2011. It all came as a shock—without any warning. I never had one of those moments where I thought, my team is going to win it all. That’s not the way Odyssey of the Mind works. It’s a competition that rewards following the program guide and creatively solving a problem as a team. It also rewards solving spontaneous problems—again in the most creative ways. Those outcomes are not something that can be predicted.
I’ve written before about what an incredible experience competing at the NY State competition was through the years and also how absolutely thrilling it was to be competing against teams from all around the world at the World Finals. So I won’t go on an on about that again!
But you may not know that THE CRIMSON FIVE books were inspired by our experience with Odyssey of the Mind—that I started planning the book that would become Spin the Golden Light Bulb shortly after our trip to the World Finals. I continued to write that book all while I continued to coach that team—for the next three years. As the years went on though, and my team continued to win competitions, it wasn’t their medals or trophies that impressed me. It was their ability to work as a team, to play to each other’s strengths, and work through obstacles.
But personally, those were really intense years. Both my son and daughter were involved in sports and being an Odyssey of the Mind coach (or team member!) takes up a lot of time…from August until March—and even longer if you move on in the competition like we did. I found it really hard to work on my writing and to develop the story of the Crimson Five, even though it was constantly on my mind itching to make its way onto the page. There were only so many hours in the day!
When the team ultimately decided to walk away from OotM, that they were ready to try other things in high school, I knew it was the right decision for them and for me. But it was such a bittersweet feeling because even though I knew in my heart that my team was ready to move on—that I was ready to move on, it still wasn’t easy. I loved the program, loved the friendships and connections I had made because of it, and loved all that my kids and the kids I had coached had become—because of it.
For years after, I worked on my story, but I never went back to any of our local competitions. I never signed up to become a judge—even though I would love to do that some day. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t go back. I knew I would just be sad. But every year on the first weekend of March, I would think about it, think about the kids, coaches, parents, and organizers who were creating their own memories there. And it made me happy. It wasn’t until last year, that my son and I did go back to watch the regional competition in our area. And I have to tell you that it was weird for both of us. It was amazing. It was…bittersweet. I missed being there with my team—any of my teams, any of the kids that put their hearts into creating something out of nothing. But I was also happy and grateful that I had experienced what I did and for memories that will always be a part of me.
And that brings me to this weekend—the weekend of our regional competition. I wish all the teams good luck—especially those in the West Irondequoit School District. No matter what the outcome is, no matter how many lines you forget, or sets that malfunction, or costumes that get put on backwards…keep going and keep smiling because those are moments that will stay with you always…even more than the ribbons or trophies. And one day (like me!) you’ll look back at the experience and won’t be sad it’s over, you’ll be thrilled that you were part of it and so very grateful!
Spin the Golden Light Bulb is a published book now because I walked away when I did. I never would have had the time to write it if I didn’t. And now this book is for the thousands of kids who’ve loved Odyssey as much as mine did and those who may never have the chance. Maybe that’s why this review on Goodreads and Amazon means so much to me… besides the fact that former Omers are discovering the story! I guess in a way this book is a love letter to OotM and all the good it has meant for kids around the world. It was such a joy to write it, and I hope those reading it will feel a bit of that same joy too!
“Okay, raise your hand if you did Odyssey of the Mind as a kid. Yes? Then this joy-filled middle-grade novel is most definitely for you. Main character Kia is plucky and quirky and hilarious, but also gets frustrated when faced with something that seems insurmountable, much like a very real sixth-grader. Middle-grade readers will love the futuristic world and tightly-paced plot, but this book is ultimately a love letter to creativity and collaboration. It dives deep into the mind of an endearing, smarty-pants girl bursting with ideas that she needs to put out into the world. It also has some very poignant things to say about family and the tension between wanting kids to dream big, and also wanting them to be okay if those dreams don’t come true. Can’t wait for the sequel!” …Erin (E.C)