What will you launch?


By Eric DeSobe (Los Angeles '01)

“Mr. DeSobe. Mr. DeSobe. Are you sleeping?” (aggressive whisper)

“Mr. DeSobe. Mr. DeSobe. I don’t you think you should be sleeping ...you’re in charge of kids right now you know” (aggressive whisper)

LuisFernando Gomez is right. I am sleeping. And I am in charge of kids. About twenty 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders. We’re riding on a big yellow school bus headed back to Compton and Bunche Elementary.

I slowly turn around in my seat and half glare, half teacher stare. He ignores it and asks, “That was really bad today wasn’t it?”

Bad? Bad? What was bad? That time when ...

A teacher -- me -- was tapped to run an after school club that would meet every other Saturday morning for 5 long hours so that teacher - me - could teach them how to build everything from mousetrap cars to egg drop contraptions to marshmallow bridges to Rube Goldberg machines for a end of year competition against other Compton elem. kids ... But that teacher -- me -- watched as every thing we built fell apart, broke, went backwards, or caved in on itself ... all of which reinforced the idea that maybe, I don’t know, the teacher -- me -- who barely passed high school math, who earned his only C in college in a rocks for jocks science course, who can barely engineer an IKEA chair together, and who doesn’t take assessments well --shouldn’t be the advisor to the MESA club ... because MESA stands for Math, Engineering, Science, and Assessments.

I looked at LuisFernando and just said, “Yeah. Bad.”

He rolled his eyes and said, “Look, we can’t be this bad again. Next year we have to place in something. You’re always telling us you grew up near NASA in Houston, right? What if we built really great bottle rockets. Our rocket didn’t actually get off the launch pad today, but our it kind of looked like everyone else’s rocket at least. We should do that. We can place.. We can win”

I stared at him for a moment, trying to intimidate him out of his enthusiasm. I couldn’t. Finally, I said, “You’re right. At the very least … my proximity growing up … to NASA … and rockets should mean we won’t finish last. Let’s do it. I’m in.”

So, the next school year we toiled away on those Saturday mornings in search of the perfect design for the perfect bottle rocket. My classroom became a workshop of empty 2 liter Fanta bottles, cardboard, paper towel rolls, glue, duct tape, scissors, and paint. By spring I had picked three bottle rocket teams to represent us at the spring competition.

A month out from the big day we received some potentially devastating news. Word came down from the MESA authorities that bottles rockets would be judged on the height of their flight (which we knew) AND how well they protected an astronaut ... namely an unboiled egg which would also make the flight. When I finished reading the letter to my teams I could only sigh and say, “well shit.” “Mr. DeSobe, I don’t think you can cuss in front of us ... but you’re right ... shit.”

This was going to be bad.

***********
The day of the competition not much had changed. Our other contests entries ... disasters. Broken macaroni cars; leaky clay boats; toppled marshmallow towers.

It was the rocket or nothing.

***********

UC Irvine, where the competition was held, has a gorgeous quad. Huge trees line a field of neatly cut grass and each rocket was launched from the middle of this space as the kids pulled a long string connected to a pin that kept the rocket secured on the launcher. About 30 teams were entered and two of our teams went in the first 10.

Their rockets didn’t launch.
And somehow their eggs also broke too.

It was the rocket or nothing.

****

Kids love countdowns. And this group was no different. Each rocket launched that day the kids counted the same way. Always excited. Always hopeful.

So when LuisFernando and his team’s rocket was loaded and he held the string in his hand the kids and spectators started up once again. Always excited. Always hopeful.

10 ... 9 ...

But I wasn’t excited. I wasn’t hopeful. That countdown for me was actually the clock running out on my teaching career.I had decided weeks before this competition that this would be my last year classroom teaching. I hadn’t told my kids yet. And I felt guilty.

8 ... 7 ....

Guilty that I wasn’t as inspired as I used to be. Guilty that the day to day reality of being with kids wasn’t as fun anymore. Guilty that I felt this way.

6 ... 5 ...

My school leadership had abruptly changed at the beginning of the year. What we had built was being dismantled by the district. About 1/2 the staff were doing other things when the year ended. We had a good run. But now we were just running.

4 ... 3

I’m staring at that damn rocket and that stupid egg and thinking did any of my five years of teaching actually do anything. Did I close the achievement gap? Did I prove the possible and help show the world what I knew my kids were capable of? Did I make significant gains? Did I master the TAL Rubric? Do enough home visits? Make plenty of positive phone calls home? Scaffold every lesson? Differentiate every centers? Make reading fun? Math a joy? Science an adventure? Was I a role model living the character values I preached? Did I ever tell my kids I really loved being their teacher?

2 ... 1 ...

Or did I just spend a lot of time working, planning, creating, crying, losing my voice, hurting, coughing, healing, testing, revising, hoping ... only to have that rocket never launch? Or, worse, have the rocket launch but do serious damage to the precious cargo inside?

0.

LuisFernado pulled the string.

And the rocket ... took off like a freaking missile. Easily 200-300 feet higher than anyone else’s rocket. Every kid in the audience uttered the ultimate Compton compliment, “daaammmnnn.”

LuisFernando and I looked at each other grinning ... until we realized ... at the same time ... the egg! Of course, the rocket had never gone that high in testing and we had no idea if it was stable enough to handle a landing from that altitude. We both frantically looked up to see we had something else to worry about too. The height of the rocket meant it was now caught in a cross-wind or polar vortex or maybe even a solar flare ... something, but the rocket was now floating across the quad ... straight towards UC Irvine’s gigantic and beautiful trees.

The mass of spectators followed (mimic on stage) the rocket across the quad and the mass let out a collective groan as our rocket made contact with the tree and then hit every branch before striking the last one about 30 feet above the ground.

The rocket crashed with a sad thump.

Somehow LuisFernando and his parter made it to the rocket before everyone else. As contest rules stated only members of the team could touch the rocket and release the egg from its hatch. They quickly picked up their creation and carefully removed some duct tape, construction paper, and a bit of gum (my idea!) before peeling back the top of the rocket’s covering.

There, in a small ziplock bag, was our egg ... completely and utterly ... intact. Not even a scratch. They had won.

****

On the bus ride back I was sleeping. I shouldn’t have been. I was in charge of kids at that time. “Mr. DeSobe. Mr. DeSobe. Are you sleeping? You know you’re still in charge of kids right?”

I turned around and gave him a quick teacher look before smiling. He said, “Today was great wasn’t it? But you know ... I was thinking ... we’re just getting started with this rocket. We could still add more wingspan, make the nose cone more aerodynamic, all sorts of things. Today’s launch ... it was just the first step ... the first steps towards something even greater. Who knows what this thing is capable of?” You’re right. Who knows?


Eric performed this story at our first ever Story Slam. You can watch his slam hereIf you're interested in sharing your story with the TFA-LA alumni community here on Alumni Voices, contact Helen Hong, Associate of Alumni Leadership & Engagement.