How I Discovered Magic and Decided to Become a Wizard
The fourth grade art project that changed my life
As a child, I was privileged enough to always have a book nearby and fortunate enough for them to be mostly science fiction or fantasy. Though I was too young to really understand the specifics, I assumed that the stories of Azimov and Clarke were and would always continue to be simply that - fiction. However, one 4th grade art project shattered my perception of not only literature but of the real world, and in exchange left me with a lifelong passion I could not bear to live without.
I remember the day itself not being unique. The glorious Texan school breakfast of milk, orange juice, and jellied toast prepared 4th grade me for another hard day of reading Shiloh, learning to multiply, and attending club activities. My school offered three different clubs: band, art, and basketball. The first one seemed to me like more studying, and the second option turned out to be the same as we were to study something called “art fundamentals”. Though as an adult I appreciate the teacher’s effort of trying to instill those skills in a room of eleven-year-olds, as a child I was hoping we would simply be left to play with clay all day. I picked basketball every year after that, which makes my discovery even more coincidental. After playing basketball that day, I saw a single flyer on the trip from the gym to my classroom on the other side of the school. It read,” ART COMPETITION, ALL GRADES WELCOME,” with a small clip art of a green abstract…thing on it.
The contest was split up into grade categories: pre-k through second grade in one, third to fifth in another, sixth to eight in yet another, and finally ninth through twelfth. I had a week to create a project so impressive it would beat the cute third graders below me and the more experienced fifth graders above me, while simultaneously standing out from the other fourth graders, many of whom attended art class. My design was creative and bold: a mini version of a park made completely out of the plastic bag ties used at grocery stores. I would like to say my idea focused on creating something useful with plastic waste by making cute little sculptures of benches with them. In reality, I ran out of ideas and thought the little benches made out of trash looked neat. I had about two days left when I decided to tell my parents about the competition. And that’s when my story changed forever.
The validation I looked for from my parents was not there, but the support hoped for was. They told me in the frank and loving way that only parents can manage: my project was literally trash. First place was just a plastic trophy, but they wanted me to exercise my creativity and foster the ingenuity they knew I carried. They advised me to dream big and imagine the most “out there”, unique, project that would win my farm-town-school’s judges’ hearts. The idea came to me the next day after a long drive through never-ending rows of cotton crops, with only the splashing of the sprinklers and the loud sputtering of the crop-dusters to keep our minivan company. Trash and overpopulation were not important to a town with a population of 503; the crops were all that there was. I was going to build a plane.
Of course, aviation and engineering are not for the faint at heart. There are few (if any) 4th graders possessing the knowledge required to build a fully functional crop-duster, and I was not one of them. My only hobbies up until then were reading and writing sci-f, so I would settle for building a small model plane. Even then, I still needed help, so I asked the only expert I knew: my dad. He worked as an air conditioning unit installer back then and got me my first DC motor to experiment with. He taught me that if you hooked up a battery and some wires to the motor, it would start spinning! That is obvious now, as I know that when the electrons flow from one side of the circuit to the other, an electromagnet is created along the coiled wire, resulting in motion as the brushed motor’s magnets adjust. Back then though, that simple action connected the fictional worlds I escaped to with the physical real world. I discovered that Electricity is the magic of our world, allowing everything between lightbulbs and spaceships to function. From that day on, I knew I would dedicate my life to taming this magic and declared my intent to become a scientist. Later on, I learned that the field I was really interested in was engineering, as I wanted to be a wizard and use this magic myself, not simply study it to write papers on it.
On the night before the deadline, my dad taught me to solder with my grandpa’s soldering iron. I wasn’t a quick learner, so the process took quite a while. After I did learn however, my dad gave me tips while I assembled the copper skeleton of the plane, taking care to join every piece of copper wire carefully. After assembling the skeleton, I added the motor and a propeller made from an old plastic gear. On the stand below the plane was the switch that controlled the motor. A quick press and the motor would switch on until it was turned off. With the skeleton and stand complete, my mom helped me pick some paper to cover the plane with and lent me her orange craft scissors. The scissors glided through the paper in a way my safety scissors could never even dream of. Then, I wrapped the plane fully in blue paper and wrote my school’s name on the side for bonus points. I even added some black stripes on the wingtips and a white square where the cockpit would be for extra style points. The mini crop-duster, my tribute to the lifeblood of our town, was complete. Then, as it was way past my bedtime, I fell asleep.
When I got to my classroom the next day, I went straight to my desk with my project. I had placed unveiling cloth over it to conceal my entry before we went for breakfast. I decided to go ahead and turn it on since I was too tired to do it the night before. At least, I tried to. I kept clicking the button and could not get the plane’s motor to start. My classmates were starting to glance in my direction, so I went to the restroom and unveiled the plane. When I had placed the batteries the night before, I had placed one of them backwards. At that time, I didn’t know the difference and my dad had gone to sleep. I couldn’t call anyone since I had no phone and time was running out; we had to turn in our projects in the cafeteria right after breakfast. In what 4th grade me would call a stroke of genius, I flipped both batteries to the same orientation, pressed the switch, and felt the hum of the planes motor mix with my sigh of relief. I had never felt so ecstatic in my entire eleven-year-old life. Creating the plane was fun, but actually making it work sent chills through my body and plastered a smile on my face for the rest of the day. I couldn’t care less if I won right now, I had already won in my heart. After that, I handed the project to the art teacher and hoped for the best.
It took an agonizingly long two weeks for the final results to be announced. The joy of crafting a functional circuit wore away as I started to consider the fact that maybe I hadn’t won after all. My classmates considered me the class nerd and class clown simultaneously (elementary school was strange), but I didn’t feel like I needed to prove myself to them. The prize of a plastic trophy and an ice cream cone didn’t do it for me either. I felt I desired victory for its own sake. Finally, after two weeks an announcement boomed on the schools speakers, “We will be displaying all entries to the art contest on Friday, and will congratulate the winners in the lobby!”
The butterflies in my stomach had been running out of fuel until that announcement. I would finally know the fate of my first venture into art and engineering. The art contest garnered enough attention that year to allow teachers to take their students to the display room during our assigned homeroom time, meaning all my classmates would finally see each other’s work. I remember crossing my fingers the entire time we walked to the lobby in a single file line. I already felt the conflicting seas of sadness and joy sloshing against the dam of uncertainty inside of me. I imagined what my parents would think if I won, or worse, if I lost. I knew they would console me if I lost, but I did not want a,” You’ll get them next year,” I wanted to show them my victory THIS year. Most of all, I needed to show them that their hard work had paid off. In a way, I did want to prove to my dad that his loss of sleep was worth it, and that I appreciated his and my mom’s sacrifices with regard to my education. Back then in the aftermath of the 2008 economic downturn, money was tight for a working-class family like mine and my parents did the best for me with what they had. I needed that trophy not just for me. And then we walked into the display room.
The room included the entire school’s projects, in varying degrees of completion and complexity. Everything between colorful egg carton caterpillars and expertly sculpted papier mâché helmets illustrated the abilities of the students at, above, and below my grade. My age group had about 60 entries, all in the center of the room. I looked around as our teacher guided us there but could not see the plane. As we neared our table, I noticed something awful. I could feel the dam inside me weaken as I realized my project wasn’t even there. I learned the speed of human though is incredible in times of stress as all of my previous overthinking made way for the new wave of doubts. Had I filled out the entry form correctly? I thought I did but maybe not. Was the plane so ugly that a teacher’s aide mistook it for garbage and threw it away? Probably not since there was a third grader that turned in half of an egg carton butterfly. Instead, could the art teacher have remembered I picked basketball over art class and disqualified me to punish me? Though these all seem silly now, my immature mind cooperated with my gentle heart to provide me with as many worst-case scenarios and emotions as they could. When we reached the end of the table, there was a divider separating the projects. Because I was short, I had not even seen it over my classmates’ heads. There, in first place, was my beautiful plane.
I will be honest here: I had no clue who or what won second and third place. All I knew was that my plane and I had completed our mission and would soon be flying home. I went home that day happier than ever but did not let my parents know yet. Unfortunately, the projects would be displayed for a week before we got our trophies, but until then I made sure to show off the plane and its now-functioning switch. After all, in a class of fourth graders, building something like that excited even the teachers. Upon receiving my trophy, I hid it in my backpack until my dad got home and showed both my parents the achievement. My parents’ hard work in teaching me, and my work in creating the project paid off. My plane’s mission was finally complete. Memories of the competition faded away from most students’ minds, however, the seed of curiosity was only just sprouting in mine. “Surely there must be more to electricity than switches and motors,” I thought, and I would soon embark on the magical adventure I continue to this day.
During the rest of my school years I picked up some more battery tricks, learned about different components, made my first robot, joined a robotics club, started a programming club, and even made a couple of video games to teach myself to code. Of course, there was still more to learn so I studied electricity formally, won the first of many awards from robotics competitions, and started writing professionally to teach others about hardware design.
Even in my most recent projects, I cannot forget my roots. I frequently work with a soldering iron similar to the one I used that day, and my own pair of orange scissors. People may not consider robotics to be a scissor-crafty hobby, but without cardboard, foam, fabric, and tape, the robots I build would not function as they do. Below are a couple of my babies:
None of this would have happened without the support of my parents, a silly art competition, or a lack of proper equipment. To them, and the tools of my trades, I am forever grateful.