Fly Five SEL Characters
I’ll never forget how bright the sun was on the day of the local STEM Fair finals. The STEM Fair was normally held in this big, old theater downtown, but this year, because of the pandemic, it was outdoors at the community college’s baseball field. I’d been really excited about standing on the big stage under the bright lights, but I guess the bright sun was better than not having the STEM Fair at all! My heart was beating so fast while we waited for the judges to announce their results. Even though my group members, Imani, Shen, and Anisa, were standing six feet apart on the turf, I swear I could hear their hearts beating, too. When they finally announced that the rocket ship we’d built had won second prize for the science portion of the fair, we all screamed and bumped elbows. A month earlier, when I’d been named the president of the science team, I was laser-focused on winning first prize. But after the ups and downs my group went through, second prize felt amazing.
The problem was, I hadn’t been the best leader at first. On the day of our first Zoom meeting, my group brought great ideas.
“Let’s use cardboard for the rocket body!” Shen had suggested.
“We’re using plastic,” I’d said back.
“I know the perfect shape for the fins,” Imani had said.
“I’ve got that figured out!” I told her.
“I think bamboo sticks will work perfectly for the launcher!” Anisa had offered.
“The launcher is planned already,” I replied. “I’ve got the perfect rocket ship all figured out!” I announced proudly. I was determined to be the smartest leader who would bring us the first prize trophy.
We had three weeks to finish our project, and we all worked really hard. My group followed my calculations, and I made sure they did everything I said. If something didn’t work, I made it my mission to solve the problem all by myself. Leaders are supposed to have all of the answers, right? I’d controlled everything, right down to the matches we used to light it up. When we met up in my backyard to put all the pieces together, I was confident. What could go wrong? Everything, it turns out! Instead of flying, a gust of wind blew our rocket onto its side. One of the fins fell off.
I had no idea what to do. Shen and Imani looked frustrated, and Anisa ran to pick the rocket up off the grass. My brain felt like it was on fire with thoughts. I had to figure out how to fix this, and fast! As I was pacing around the yard, my group called me over.
“You didn’t listen to any of our ideas,” Shen said to me.
“We know you’re the leader, but we have good ideas, too,” Anisa told me. “It hurt our feelings when you didn’t listen.”
My palms were sweating. I hadn’t meant to hurt my friends’ feelings! Wanting to win so badly had clouded my focus. My first impulse was to defend my actions. It’s not like I meant to hurt anyone’s feelings. Winning first prize is important! But I knew my intentions didn’t matter. I hadn’t been self-aware enough to see how I was impacting them, and our work. I took a deep breath and said I was sorry. They accepted my apology, but I still didn’t know what to do. We only had a week left before the STEM fair, and our rocket didn’t fly. My thoughts ping-ponged around my brain when Imani said, “We can still make this rocket work if we work together!” I knew she was right. We had to put our heads together and push through to the end.
We met outside every day after classes for the next week. We had no time to lose. Shen and I worked on the rocket body. Imani reshaped the fins. Anisa fine-tuned the nose cone. On the day before the STEM Fair, our rocket finally flew! My group had been right; we made more progress when we worked together. But still, even with a flying rocket, I wasn’t sure if we’d win any prizes. Everyone else had probably not wasted time making a project that didn’t work.
When it was our turn to present, the judges watched our every move. I held my breath as Shen and Imani set everything up. We counted down from five together and... our rocket performed perfectly! It shot into the air and left a stream of grey smoke in its wake. The judges clapped politely and scribbled notes onto their clipboards. We were nervous but proud.
“Look what we made in just one week!” Imani exclaimed while the rocket soared overhead.
“Good job captain,” Shen called to me as he ran to get the rocket from across the field.
Later that afternoon, beneath the bright sun on the hot astroturf, we won second prize. It felt like a miracle. We didn’t move on to the state’s STEM competition, but we got to show off our trophy on a Zoom with our whole class. And when school opens again, we’ll get to display it in the trophy case right in the main hallway. Before this, I didn’t know that self-awareness was part of leadership. I thought leadership was having all the answers and winning first prize. But now I know it’s just as important to listen to everyone’s ideas. And pay attention to how I’m affecting others! Sometimes I wish I could go back and start all over, because I really do love coming in first. Then I remember that there’s always next year! Instead of feeling bad about not reaching my first-place goal, I’m going to focus on becoming the best leader I can be. That way, when I have another chance to be in the STEM Fair, I’ll be ready to lead us to victory.