To Be A Geek, A Robot God

An epic saga of genius, striving, triumph and survival in which our heroes, mere high school students, create truly marvelous mechanical beings, becoming fairly amazing human beings in the process

"There are more engineers than artists, but HSPVA has no trouble filling up," he says. "I'm not knocking HISD, but if I were on the board, I'd set up magnet schools on their own. They've imploded as schools within schools."


But HISD politics are the last thing on the Leopards' minds Friday at the arena. Today is the first official day of the competition, and the team is decked out in matching black-and-white T-shirts and baseball caps. Gina writes "Go Team 57!" on the team's dry-erase board that keeps track of points and matches. She also doodles a picture of a pig because she claims she can't draw a leopard. The drivers, Phillip Nelson and Myles Goodman, wear leopard suits complete with tails. Their human player, responsible for shooting basketballs into the goals, is junior Damian Canetti-Rios.

Bob Brienzo teaches English at HSEP, but robots are a passion too.
Deron Neblett
Bob Brienzo teaches English at HSEP, but robots are a passion too.
Virgil Gamble uses his Palm Pilot to assist Anthony with some quick calculations.
Deron Neblett
Virgil Gamble uses his Palm Pilot to assist Anthony with some quick calculations.

"They picked me because I'm tall -- that's the only reason," he mutters. "I'm clumsy."

The HSEP kids act free of cooler-than-thou high school posturing. Some of them wear capes covered in team buttons. Others average out team scores on Palm Pilots. They take breaks to hula-hoop in the middle of the lobby. Gina paints leopard stripes on her boyfriend Myles's face. As Anthony organizes the team's tools, he peers at Myles's leopard-wear.

"Those suits are chick magnets," he decides.

It's almost time for the Leopards' first official match. The kids who operate the robot, and some adult advisers, head down to the playing area to wait their turn, while the rest of the HSEP students take their places in the stands. Team mothers have marked off the seats with signs. As one of the moms puts it, "It's football -- on a geek's level."

Booker T.'s main football rivals are in attendance, but when it comes to robotics, Yates High School is nothing but a friend to the kids of HSEP.

"Yates is the best robot out there," says Virgil, observing the match preceding HSEP's. Some of the Leopards cheer on Yates from their seats.

Finally HSEP takes its place on the floor. As the buzzer signals the start of the match, Vanilla Ice's "Ice, Ice Baby" begins to play, and rotating colored lights shine down on the field to create a sort of robot disco. The kids in the stands jump up and whoop wildly, shaking plastic soda bottles filled with pennies. But almost as soon as the match begins, there's a problem. With its long mechanical arm, Big Cat has managed to grasp one of the goals, only to have it tip over and fall directly on top of the chassis. Big Cat stops in its tracks.

"The Leopards are motionless on the field!" cries the announcer into the mike. "A tough break for the Leopards!"

For the agonizing remainder of the match, the Leopards in the stands continue to cheer, but they can't imagine what could be wrong. As soon as the match is over, almost all 30 of them race down to the pit to discover that -- against all logic -- when the goal fell on top of Big Cat it managed to hit the kill switch and turn the robot off. Competition rules made it illegal for the Leopards to go onto the field during the match, even to turn the robot back on.

"That wasn't exactly what we wanted," says Myles, as Gina tries to cheer him up.

Jose and others decide an aluminum brace attached to the top of Big Cat is a good idea, even though the odds are slim that a goal will turn off the robot again. By the time the robot is ready for its second of seven Friday matches, the Leopards are back in the stands. Inexplicably, the goal falls on top of Big Cat again.

Back at the pit after the second match, Anthony makes calculations on the dry-erase board with a green marker.

"We are averaging 97 and a half points per game right now," he says in a very quick clip. "That is about ten to 12 points below our expectations."

Mr. Brienzo observes the scene. "When you work with machines, you find out Murphy was an optimist," he says.

Up in the stands, Jose is brooding.

"I feel like I carry a lot of weight," he says.

As a third-year member, Jose shoulders almost as much responsibility at school as at home with Melissa and Vivianna. During robot season it can be stressful, because he rarely gets back to his family until late at night. It bugs him, because he loves spending time with his daughter, taking her for walks, pushing her in the stroller.

"She's like a robot you can't control," he says with a laugh.

Jose likes to take Vivianna driving, because when she looks out the window she's amazed by everything she sees. Vivianna amazes Jose. One minute she's crying, the next minute she's walking, he says.

She was a surprise, Jose acknowledges. But he thinks she was a good one. When he told his mother he was going to be a father, she "lost her head." But his dad was more excited about a new grandchild. Jose says his dad had Jose when he was young himself, so he understands. Jose's relatives all live within a five-minute drive of his house, which he says gives him a good feeling. He knows he wants to be an engineer, and his advisers sure think he would be a good one. But he's still not certain what will happen next year.

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