Davis jumps to describing Lorenzo’s early childhood. When he is a few months old, his mother Laura accidentally drops him on a curb in Zitácuaro, a town in the Mexican state of Michoacán. He already has an odd, pear-shaped head, and now he has a lump on his forehead on top of that. She decides that he needs better medical attention, and in 1988 she crosses through a tunnel under the U.S.-Mexican border with Lorenzo.
As Davis flashes back to each of the students’ lives growing up, a few common threads emerge. One of the most common is that their parents simply want better opportunities for their children—a value that any parent, regardless of cultural background, shares.
Laura finds a doctor in Phoenix, who tells her that Lorenzo seems to be doing fine. The doctor could perform a cosmetic surgery, but it would be unnecessary. From that moment on, Laura tells Lorenzo that the bump on his head means he is smart.
Laura acknowledges the fact that the things that make someone different—and even ridiculed—are also the things that can be their greatest asset.
Laura and her husband Pablo decide they should stay in the United States, because they have barely been getting by in Mexico and there are a lot more opportunities in the United States. The family (Laura, Pablo, Lorenzo, and his older brother José) moves to a two-room apartment near downtown Phoenix. Laura gets work as a hotel maid, and Pablo works as a landscaper.
Laura and Pablo travel to the United States first to get better medical attention for their son, and then get job opportunities for themselves—a far cry from the stereotype of laziness that many Americans seem to have of Hispanic immigrants.
Once in the United States, Laura and Pablo have three more children: Pablo Jr., Yoliet, and Fernando. These three children will have significantly more opportunities to live and work in the U.S. than Lorenzo and José.
Davis also notes how the miniscule difference of being born on one side of a fence versus the other side can drastically alter the trajectory of a person’s life, due to American immigration policies.
Laura tries to put Mexico behind them, but Pablo does not forget the solitude of the Mexican forest. He has a hard time adjusting to the urban desert with five children, and on weekends buys a twelve-pack of beer and works his way through it. Sometimes he is kind to Lorenzo; other times, he abuses him.
The lives of those who have immigrated are difficult for a number of reasons; not only because of the immigration policies, but also having to uproot their lives and their families.
At school, Lorenzo is often mocked for his odd-shaped head. Lorenzo embraces the fact that he is different and grows his hair long. Laura supports him, but kids continue to make fun of him. He yells back at them in response, saying that he doesn’t want to be like everyone else.
Lorenzo’s odd-shaped head will be the source of constant teasing throughout his school years. But his outsider status is also what will allow him to gain a creative and unique perspective on the world that adds to the students’ success at the competition.
In seventh grade, a friend asks Lorenzo to carry marijuana for a local gang. He stashes it in his backpack and leaves it on school grounds as instructed, but he is terrified the whole time. He realizes he isn’t cut out to be a criminal and refuses to do it again.
Lorenzo’s brief foray into a gang, which he only does out of a desire for a sense of belonging to a group, emphasizes his need for friendship and schools’ needs for clubs and groups that provide students with a sense of community.
Instead, Lorenzo tries to join the marching band. He learns piano pieces by ear, but the band has no piano, so the teacher gives him a xylophone instead. But Lorenzo does not read sheet music, and so when he marches along with the band at Christmas, he hits a few wrong notes before giving up.
Lorenzo’s need for friendship throughout his middle school experience is what makes his later relationships with the other boys on the team so meaningful and important, particularly because this then allows him to pursue a passion as well.
Lorenzo returns the xylophone and does not return to band. He is desperate to find friends, but the heckling continues. He starts to pick fights at school until a counselor assigns him to anger-management classes. He learns a few techniques to cope with his anger, but it’s hard to ignore all of the teasing.
Without those friendships and that motivation, it is easy to see how Lorenzo could be caught not only in poverty and low expectations, as Fredi implies later, but also in depression and loneliness.
After school, Lorenzo helps his godfather Hugo fix cars in the makeshift auto repair shop he has set up in his driveway. Hugo won’t let Lorenzo do much more than clean the tools, but Lorenzo stands beside the cars and watches. Lorenzo learns the importance of creativity and ingenuity, as Hugo doesn’t have much money, and to survive he has to come up with fresh ideas and adapt. Lorenzo takes this to heart: an unusual idea isn’t necessarily bad. It might be the only solution.
In Hugo, Lorenzo gets a first mentor figure. Hugo’s work sparks Lorenzo’s creativity and also gives Lorenzo a model for coming up with ingenious and practical solutions. This skill will be invaluable when the team starts to build their robot later in the book.
Davis delves more deeply into Carl Hayden High School’s and West Phoenix’s history. In 1965, the students were nearly all white, and it had once been a well-regarded school. Now, the neighborhood has an abandoned feeling, the outside of the school looks patchy and drab, and the school is 92 percent Hispanic.
The backstory provided for Carl Hayden High School and West Phoenix illuminates some of the longstanding systematic inequality in Phoenix’s history, and how it contributed both to the school becoming a magnet school and also to it becoming relatively impoverished.
The student body reflects Phoenix’s transformation. Phoenix was founded in 1868 by Jack Swilling, who came to Arizona, fell in love with a Mexican woman, and then built a canal to irrigate the land. Before long, the rich soil drew other settlers, and the city was developed. Tax revenue was largely allocated to infrastructure in neighborhoods developed by white settlers (which became East Phoenix), while the Mexican immigrants’ communities (West Phoenix) got almost nothing.
Davis wastes no time in demonstrating the inequality in Phoenix. Even though the town was born out of the union between a white man and a Mexican woman, the white settlers quickly collected power and wealth, while the Mexican communities in the area did not get the same kind of opportunity. This early inequality contributes to the prejudice and stereotypes that persist today.
World War II then brought a boom in manufacturing, factories sprung up in West Phoenix, and small villages were constructed near the factories to serve the working-class white community who worked there. But in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the factories expanded, pollution increased, leukemia outbreaks were reported, and those people largely moved out of the area and over to East Phoenix.
West Phoenix’s narrative is interesting in the context of the American Dream: even though every person should have the same opportunity to be successful, it is clear that due to racial prejudice and the wealth that people are able to accumulate, even working-class white people were able to find better situations than their Mexican counterparts.
As East Phoenix’s population expanded to almost one million people, wealthier residents needed a variety of services. This demand for labor was met by immigrants who came across the border illegally and settled in West Phoenix.
It is also ironic that immigrants are criticized for being lazy and taking jobs, as Davis notes later, when often they come to meet the demand, preventing labor shortages.
These changing demographics posed a challenge for schools, as in 1985 a federal judge ordered the district to desegregate. Administrators tried to entice white students back to West Phoenix by making Carl Hayden a magnet school specializing in marine science and computer programming. The attempt failed, and most of the white families had created suburbs surrounding Phoenix anyway, so there was no more diversity to balance. By 2004, Carl Hayden was 98% Hispanic, and so was West Phoenix. White people rarely ventured into the town at all, with one professor at Arizona State University commenting that “there’s nothing worthwhile there.”
Though the school administrators added programs in marine science and computer programming in an attempt to retain white students, these programs are taken advantage of by everyone. The fact that these programs exist at Carl Hayden is what allows the robotics team to flourish, and in a way the situation implies that any kid, given the opportunity, can make the most of added resources.
Davis then turns to Cristian’s childhood, growing up in Mexicali, Mexico. He is a small, skinny boy who prefers to play inside, away from people who could make fun of him or push him around due to his diminutive size. When he is four years old, he disassembles the family radio and plugs it back in, shorting the power in the house. Cristian’s mother Leticia yells at him, but he is excited by his experiment. Cristian continues to take all of his toys apart, and he announces that he wants to build robots. No one knows where he had gotten the idea, but it quickly becomes an obsession.
Like Lorenzo, Cristian’s childhood sheds some light on how some of his disadvantages actually become advantages. As a child on the smaller side and with allergies (as Davis explains later), Cristian spends a lot of time indoors, which leads him to his love of electronics, technology, and robots. Cristian’s passion for science and math, coupled with his intelligence, becomes one of the team’s greatest assets.
In 1994, when Cristian is four, his father Juan travels to the United States and finds work in Arizona. He makes more money than he did in Mexicali, but he misses his family. In November 1995, Cristian’s family drives him across the border; he sleeps most of the way there. The town that Cristian moves to has a population of six hundred and feels like a ghost town. He and his family live in a three-room house with another family.
Cristian’s father continues the pattern that Davis points out, in which these boys’ families move to the United States because they are looking for more job opportunities and for a better life for their children.
In December, Cristian starts elementary school. His biggest obstacle is that he doesn’t speak any English. He doesn’t understand the instructions on his worksheet, and he gets on the wrong bus going home. As the school year progresses, Cristian continues to have trouble, getting on the wrong bus again and again.
Davis also relays how the students who come from Mexico have to deal with extra obstacles in their lives, such as having to go to a school in which lessons are taught in a language that they are simply expected to pick up.
Cristian is in an English-learner program but continues to struggle. He receives straight Fs that year. His teachers sometimes yell at him or ridicule him; on the bus, kids call him names. Still, Cristian is convinced that he is smarter than most of them.
Cristian’s thoughts here show his perseverance in the face of prejudice. Despite the ridicule he experiences, he is able to retain confidence in his intelligence. It is easy to imagine that another kid might not have been able to retain that confidence, squandering their potential.
That summer, the family moves to a trailer on the outskirts of town. Cristian has allergies and so he decides to stay indoors most of the time, watching TV. That’s when he’s introduced to Bob Vila’s show Home Again, which is the first of a series of “fix-up-your-home” shows he hosts. Vila himself was a Cuban immigrant, and he becomes a symbol of hope for Cristian, who loves watching him work with power tools.
Again, Cristian’s allergies lead him to an interest in science and math, showing how obstacles can become opportunities. Bob Vila’s show also serves as a way of making the sciences even more appealing to Cristian, as his curiosity and sense of excitement surrounding construction are both sparked by the TV show.
When Cristian is nine years old, the family moves to a trailer park in West Phoenix. Juan has gotten a job as a welder; ironically, one of the company’s clients includes the Border Patrol, and he is dispatched to work at their facilities.
Even though the Border Patrol is meant to keep people like Juan out of the country, the fact that he is building for them ironically proves the company’s need for labor that the immigrants provide.
The trailer park that Cristian and his family move to feels like a huge step up, primarily because there isn’t dirt everywhere. Cristian is also just a block away from his school, so he doesn’t have to deal with finding the right bus anymore.
Again, it is striking that even the simplest improvements constitute big steps up for these immigrants, as they merely seek to escape the poverty and lack of opportunity that they faced in Mexico.
Over the next few years, Cristian finds that watching Bob Vila has improved his English. By fourth grade he is fluent; by fifth grade, he is getting straight As and wondering why everyone else is so slow. He spends most of his time in the library, reading the most challenging books he can find.
Vila’s show not only sparks Cristian’s creativity and interest in math and science, but it also provides him with a way of learning English and becoming successful in other subjects in school.
In eighth grade, Cristian meets Ms. Hildebrandt, the chemistry teacher. She encourages him to choose an independent project that interests him. Cristian decides to explore the effect of different fin designs on a rocket. He recruits a couple of other students and scrapes together a few dollars to buy a model rocket. Cristian conducts his experiment next to the soccer field. He runs fishing line between two fences, affixes the rocket to the string, and figures he’ll ignite the rocket and measure how far it goes with each set of fins.
Mrs. Hildebrandt serves as an early mentor for Cristian, and her encouragement is similar to Fredi’s. She focuses on getting Cristian excited about a project that he can design and test, which gives him a feeling of confidence and accomplishment when he is able to design his rocket experiment.
Cristian lights the rocket’s engine. It immediately melts the fishing line and shoots across the soccer field, before pivoting straight up and emitting a huge boom above the field. Everyone ducks for cover as the rocket floats to the ground under a parachute. A teacher runs out, scolding him, but privately Cristian wonders what his next experiment might be.
Even though the rocket experiment isn’t very successful, the excitement that it brings to Cristian is what spurs him on to more and more experiments and projects.
At the end of eighth grade, Cristian starts to think about high school. He visits North High School, which has an international baccalaureate program, but is told that there are no open spaces. Cristian then decides that his local high school, Carl Hayden, would be fine—he is attracted by the computer science and marine science programs.
It is ironic that the computer science and marine programs—which had been created to lure white students back to the school—become appealing to a very talented Latino student, as Cristian proves that those resources can be valuable to anyone.
When Cristian starts at Carl Hayden, he signs up for all honors courses. He skips freshman science and takes sophomore biology. He tries to supplement his learning by researching at home, but the Internet access is lost anytime a family member uses the phone. Cristian continues to excel in school, but he’s also very bored.
Davis also points out repeatedly how drastically different the lives of these students are, versus the students from MIT whom they beat at the MATE competition. In spite of Cristian’s not having reliable internet access, he is still able to excel.
Cristian then meets Fredi Lajvardi, the program manager of the marine science program. At the beginning of every class, Fredi convenes the students and assigns individual missions for them to complete over the period. He plays loud, energetic techno music of his own making while doling out constant advice for the kids as they complete their projects.
Fredi’s mentorship is invaluable to the students. He encourages them in their projects but does not give away all of the answers; additionally, he makes his classroom fun with hands-on learning and music, revealing how good teachers need not be overly strict or dry in their classrooms.
Fredi focuses on getting kids excited to learn, caring less about covering the required curriculum. When he began teaching at Carl Hayden in 1987, he started a class called Science Seminar, in which Fredi simply told students to find something fun to build or an idea to test. Cristian hears about Fredi from a fellow freshman named Michael Hanck, who is building robots in the class. It is what Cristian has been waiting his whole life to hear.
Fredi and Cristian’s meeting is a remarkable bout of luck, as Fredi becomes exactly the type of mentor that can help Cristian excel. This implies that with the right teacher, many students could enjoy the same success regardless of their background. But it also implies that it is too easy for kids in poverty to not experience that success if they do not have a teacher as passionate, encouraging, and hopeful as Fredi.
About six years prior, on July 27, 1997, police in a Phoenix suburb named Chandler were alerted by residents that there were immigrants bathing naked in the orange groves; others said there were Mexicans loitering around the Circle K grocery story. INS agents are dispatched and quickly identify targets: one officer stops a woman arguing with her five-year-old in Spanish. He asks for proof of her citizenship. She shows him her driver’s license, but that isn’t enough. Luckily, she has her birth certificate in her car.
Davis, who has spoken about immigration on an individual level with Cristian and Lorenzo’s stories at this point, now expands his narrative to set the scene for the atmosphere in Arizona surrounding immigration. This scene helps establish that the way in which Latino people are treated in Phoenix is deeply rooted in prejudice.
That sweep catches 432 other people, with the goal of “build[ing] stronger neighborhoods.” Police chase down thirteen “aliens” at Hamilton High School. At a Little Caesars, a sixteen-year-old and his friend are stopped and asked if they are “legal.” They’re loaded into a squad car; the teenager’s mother arrives in the nick of time with his social security card, but his friend isn’t so lucky, and is deported.
The guise of “building stronger neighborhoods,” coupled with the unsubstantiated and racist claims that prompted the sweep, demonstrates the underlying bias many people have in Phoenix and the resulting danger for the Carl Hayden students around the time that they are growing up.
Officers are required to fill out a form when they detain someone and indicate probable cause. Such causes include “clothing consistent with that of illegal entrant aliens” or “a strong body odor common to illegal aliens.”
Davis notes that in addition to the average citizens in Phoenix, the police also share this deep prejudice and use both innocuous and racist reasons to detain and deport people.
The next evening, the police do a sweep of a trailer park, having convinced a park manager to notate a map with Xs for every trailer that might contain illegal immigrants. The officers bang on the door of a sleeping family at 11:00 pm that night. A father, his brother-in-law, and four children have their papers checked. The brother-in-law has an expired visa and the officers cart him away in his pajamas.
This incident demonstrates some of the irony in the U.S.’s policies. While the police claim to want to build stronger neighborhoods, they are in fact unjustly targeting citizens who appear to be Hispanic, as well as separating them from family members. They are, then, actually tearing neighborhoods apart.
Arizona attorney general Grant Woods reviews the roundup, finding that a pregnant woman had been loaded into a van with no windows or water on a 101-degree day. In another incident, one individual was bitten by a dog; in a third, police had used “physical force beyond what appeared appropriate for the arrest.” Woods notes that most of the deportees have no criminal record. Woods writes in his report that people should be treated with dignity even when they are suspected of being in the United States illegally.
Woods’s comments here can be seen as in conversation with Major Goins’s teachings later. Woods seems to imply that under America’s laws every person deserves a certain baseline of respect, dignity, and humanity. This echoes Goins’s arguments later that under the American Constitution everyone deserves life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, even if they are not American citizens.
The Chandler raid is one of the largest in Phoenix history, but it is not an isolated event. In addition to the police raids, various vigilante groups are formed. They hold “Hispanic-looking” people at gunpoint while patrolling the state. In 2003, south of Phoenix, twelve migrants are sleeping beside a pond when two men dressed in camouflage appear. The men open fire, killing two of the migrants. The police later arrive, but no one is apprehended for the crime.
The vigilante groups are even worse than the police in some ways and evidence how racist policing may inflame and embolden community-wide prejudice. The fact that they carry out unpunished murders against harmless people looking for a better life is not in line with the values and principles that American citizens claim to hold.
By 2004, vigilante organizations continue to scour the state. Presidential hopeful Patrick J. Buchanan argues that what Mexico is doing to America is colonization, and that migrants are coming to reclaim the land. Buchanan says that families come to the U.S. to leech off government services, draining resources from long-standing citizens. He believes it is better to turn them away because they are being “inculcated with the values of a subculture of gangs, crime, drugs, and violence.”
Though Buchanan spoke these words in 2004 (and even though this book was published in 2014), there are clear echoes between his words and the words of many more recent candidates for political office, demonstrating how this issue continues to be a source of heated debate in America.
Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County (which includes Phoenix), agrees with Buchanan. To Arpaio, Mexican immigrants are “disease-carrying criminals” who “didn’t have the same values as American citizens.” He feels that the federal government isn’t doing enough to turn back Mexicans. And so, for kids like Cristian and Lorenzo, getting good grades might have been the least of their problems.
Davis reveals the broader political atmosphere to again underscore the difficulties faced by these students on an individual level, as they try to succeed against a backdrop of immense societal prejudice against them. This makes what the students eventually accomplish all the more impressive.
In 1996, nine-year-old Oscar Vazquez wakes up to a big fire outside. His father, Ramiro, is going to butcher one of the family pigs—a sure sign of a party. Oscar’s father had once been a police officer, but the government gave him a broken pistol; now he farms corn. Oscar holds the pig in place as his dad kills the animal, which he has never done before. When the animal stops moving, Oscar releases the rope, a little shaken.
Oscar’s life growing up in Mexico again reiterates some of the struggles that he and other families face: poverty, the lack of opportunity for social mobility, and the idea that he has to grow up fast and make sacrifices to help support the family.
Ramiro says that the pig isn’t for a party; it’s going to be sold to finance Ramiro’s journey to the United States. A week later, he leaves. Oscar’s mother, Manuela, quickly falls into a depression. Oscar’s older brother Pedro doesn’t help out much; his sister, Luz, helps with the cooking, but Oscar effectively becomes the man of the house and takes care of the animals and the farm.
Oscar is certainly forced to deal with adult situations faster than many children his age due to his family’s poverty, but this also gives him the opportunity to be a strong leader early on, as he helps take care of his mother and sister. For Oscar, as for Cristian, obstacles become a source of opportunity.
Ramiro works on a potato farm in Idaho and sends $100 a month back to Mexico. Oscar misses his dad. He is in fourth grade and a standout student, even winning a second-place trophy in a state academic competition. But his father is not there to witness his son’s success.
Again, like the other boys, Oscar’s narrative fits into the pattern of a hard-working parent who goes to the United States in search of opportunity and eventually is able to support the family’s immigration as well.
A few weeks after Oscar’s eleventh birthday, Ramiro calls and says he’s being deported. Oscar is excited to have his father back, and Manuela is happier as well. His dad has saved a thousand dollars, and life returns to normal.
Even though Ramiro’s deportation is not good news, the fact that Oscar is happy highlights the difficult situations that immigrants face when having to leave their families in order to support them.
Ramiro quickly grows unhappy, as he could make more in an hour in the U.S. than in a whole day in Mexico. After two weeks, he announces that he is going back to the United States—and that he plans to save everything he can to bring the whole family with him.
Ramiro’s decision to then return to the United States emphasizes the difficulty of these journeys, because often immigration to the U.S. serves as a choice between more opportunity and a united family.
In January 1998, Oscar boards a bus with Manuela. Luz insists on staying behind with a local boy with whom she has fallen in love. Pedro will come later. The bus travels north to Agua Prieta, a border town across from Arizona.
For Ramiro, Oscar, and particularly Manuela, being separated from the rest of the family will ultimately come at too much of a cost for all of them to remain in the U.S., even though they can find better work and education.
The next day, an older relative meets Oscar and Manuela and introduces them to two women, who hand them green cards. A few hours later, the ladies drive them to the crossing station. They are stopped by a border patrol agent; Oscar shows the man his green card, and he and his mother are waved through.
Oscar and Manuela’s first trip across the border is easier than their second will be, but still comes with the nerve-wracking possibility that they could be separated or jailed (as the women who ferry them over eventually are).
Oscar, Manuela, and the two women stop at a Circle K store next to a freeway overpass that amazes Oscar. He marvels at the concrete on-ramps and thinks that America is a land where anything is possible.
Oscar’s marveling at the concrete on-ramps demonstrates how destitute their situation had been back in Mexico, and how he will make use of that opportunity he gains in the future.
Ramiro arrives and hands the ladies an envelope with two thousand dollars. Then he drives Oscar and Manuela home to a one-bedroom apartment with peeling paint, a dirt yard, and neighbors who blast music. They also share the home with another family.
Like the other students, even in America Oscar and his family deal with less than ideal living conditions, all for the sake of giving Oscar a good education and keeping the family together.
Oscar attends Isaac Middle School, but he doesn’t speak English. Within a few weeks, he gets to the right classrooms on time, but soon trouble strikes. Luz refuses to join the family in Phoenix and Manuela becomes increasingly anxious and depressed. One day after school, Ramiro tells Oscar that he plans on staying in the United States, but that Oscar and his mother are going to return to Mexico.
The back and forth becomes particularly difficult for Oscar as he struggles to learn English and then is forced to go back to Mexico. Yet even with this seesawing, Oscar is eventually able to return to the United States and push himself to do well on his schoolwork instead of simply giving up.
Oscar cries all the way to the border. Back in Mexico, he readapts to his life, but he is still riveted by the overpass. He begins to work odd jobs around town for a few pesos. He wins a government scholarship to return to middle school.
Again, Oscar develops an early sense of dedication and resilience in returning to Mexico and picking up odd jobs to support his family.
Eight months after they return, Luz elopes with her boyfriend. Manuela sobs for a week, until Luz returns with her new husband, beaming. Manuela starts to shift her focus to Oscar. She is hesitant to return to the United States but knows that there is more opportunity for him there. The schools are free, and the coursework is more demanding. Oscar, however, doesn’t want to go back. She puts her foot down and tells him to pack a bag of clothes.
The details that Davis brings up as to why Manuela wants to return to the United States make it clear that she is thinking primarily of Oscar’s future and education. He also illuminates why immigrating is so appealing to poorer families: education is free in the United States, unlike in Mexico.
In December 1998, Oscar and Manuela return to Agua Prieta. The ladies who had helped them cross before have now been arrested, so they need new “coyotes.” They meet three of Ramiro’s friends with green cards, who agree to help coordinate the crossing.
Davis demonstrates the danger not only in being an undocumented immigrant and crossing the border, but also in helping anyone cross the border.
Sitting in the plaza, waiting for Ramiro’s friends, Oscar tells Manuela that he doesn’t want to go back. She points to a child with a remote-controlled car and tells him that she will buy him one if he is strong. To Oscar, the car is like magic.
The remote-controlled car sparks an early sense of curiosity in Oscar, which he later returns to when he is looking to find a new sense of purpose and a new team outside of ROTC.
Ramiro’s friends help Manuela and Oscar find two men claiming to be coyotes. They look more like addicts to Oscar, and he is afraid that the men will attack them. As they walk towards a hole in the border fence, Oscar scans the ground for rocks to fight them with.
Oscar’s thoughts remind readers how dangerous the trip can be for the immigrants, particularly as they must trust people they do not know to help them get across—once again, Davis emphasizes that many of these kids have a heavy responsibility in supporting or protecting their parents.
Oscar, Manuela, and the two coyotes climb through the hole in the chain link fence. They start to jog, and Oscar sticks by his mother, afraid of getting caught and going to jail, or of his mother getting caught and being left alone.
Oscar’s fear that he and his mother could be separated and/or jailed simply for walking into the United States again demonstrates the difficult cost/benefit calculations that immigrants must make about crossing the border.
As the sun sets, Oscar grows more and more afraid. The temperature starts to plummet. After what feels like hours, the group nears a road when a Border Patrol truck drives right towards them. They dive to the ground. As the truck drives past, the agent looks right at them but keeps going. They figure that the truck must be full, but the agent probably called for backup. They run the rest of the way to the buildings.
Oscar’s border crossing illuminates how, like the immigration system itself, their ability to come to and live in the United States comes down to luck. The arbitrariness with which people are deported makes the policies even messier once they enter the United States, as Oscar is then doomed to a life of instability in the country.
Manuela and Oscar walk around to the front of the building, which they discover is a Walmart. They wait inside the store. Oscar comments that they must have been running for hours. Manuela laughs and says that they left Mexico twenty minutes ago. She then hushes him so that no one will hear them speaking Spanish. Ramiro’s friends arrive within an hour and take Oscar and Manuela home. They arrive at a house with a big front yard with grass.
When Manuela tells Oscar to stop speaking, it demonstrates her fear that they could be deported simply because they are speaking Spanish; even their language makes them easily targeted by immigration officials. This moment suggests the immediate pain and silencing—that is, the sacrifice—that the pursuit of a new life can entail.
Oscar returns to Isaac Middle School. He doesn’t make many friends, but he does start to pick up English. He participates in a science fair: because he grew up in a bean-growing region, he conducts an experiment on how light and humidity affect the germination of beans. He meticulously documents his results in English, impressing and surprising his teachers. Oscar wins $200 at the county science fair. He starts to dream about going to college.
Oscar continues to capitalize on his initial curiosity about science and technology in conducting his experiment. He also demonstrates one of the key ways in which science can become exciting to kids, in making his project interesting and relevant to himself.
Oscar graduates from Isaac Middle School to Carl Hayden. He tries out for the football team but is cut for not knowing the rules. He tries out for soccer but plays too rough. Then one day, he sees a group of students jogging across the field; they belong to the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). He is impressed by their discipline and their tirelessness.
Oscar, like Lorenzo and Cristian, has a difficult time finding a team to which he can belong. However, ROTC becomes his first opportunity to find a group, and also provides him with a deeper love of America.
Oscar signs up for the ROTC, and Major Glenn Goins, the group’s instructor, welcomes him into the group. The mission of the program is to “inspire young people to become better American citizens.” Oscar transforms from a skinny kid into a muscled machine. By his junior year, he becomes the commander of the Adventure Training Team. With Oscar’s leadership, they begin to beat ROTC programs from much larger schools in competitions.
Goins becomes an early mentor for Oscar, as he encourages him to follow his passions and gives him the tools to succeed in it. This discipline and motivation is what gives Oscar the leadership tools that he brings to the robotics club.
Goins teaches his students that the Declaration of Independence gave all people “unalienable Rights,” not just American citizens. But he also knows that many of his charges can’t enter the military because they are not American citizens. Oscar doesn’t know this, however. He views himself as American and wants to give back to the country that gave him so much, particularly after 9/11.
Again, there is an irony in Oscar’s interest in the ROTC and the military. The path for him to become a “better American citizen” is a long and hard one, despite the fact that he primarily views himself as an American; much as he embraces his new country, it’s clear that it does not readily embrace him in return.
At fourteen, Oscar asks Major Goins if he can enlist. Goins asks if Oscar has a green card; when Oscar says he doesn’t, Goins admits that he cannot join the Army unless he is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. Oscar is shocked. He walks away thinking that maybe if he was good enough, something would change.
Despite the fact that Goins can give Oscar the tools to succeed in the ROTC, he still cannot change Oscar’s primary obstacle to becoming an American soldier: the fact that he is not a citizen.
When Oscar is a junior, he and his battalion go to an Army base to run an obstacle course. Oscar’s dedication while running the course leads Goins to promote him to cadet major, making him the battalion’s executive officer. Oscar rallies his squad to do long training exercises. Goins also teaches a civics class, in which Oscar memorizes the Preamble to the Constitution.
Oscar becomes a model American soldier, except for the fact that he is not a citizen. His background in the ROTC is one of the things that is later pointed out, even by U.S. Senators, as a reason that there should be an easier path to citizenship for kids like Oscar.
At the end of Oscar’s junior year, Goins awards him the Officer of the Year trophy—but it isn’t enough to change his immigration status. Two other cadets enlist, while Oscar stays at home. By the start of his senior year, he realizes that he needs to find something else to do with himself. So, he signs up for Fredi’s marine science class.
Even though Oscar is unable to continue his career in the military, it is precisely this obstacle which then leads him to his next great success: leading the robotics club to its national championship just one year later.
Davis describes Fredi’s own journey to the United States. Fredi is born in Tehran, Iran, in 1965. His parents, Reza and Tooran, are both doctors, and they move to Cleveland, Ohio, when Fredi is just a year old. His brother Alladin is born in Cleveland and automatically gains U.S. citizenship, something that Fredi won’t receive until he is nineteen years old.
Fredi and his parents experience their own version of prejudice and the American Dream. Even though Fredi is able to gain citizenship at nineteen, the fact that his brother automatically becomes a citizen by being born on U.S. soil highlights some of the arbitrariness and luck of what it takes to be a U.S. citizen.
Reza and Tooran follow jobs to Phoenix in 1969. Fredi starts elementary school and speaks English both there and at home—his parents want him and his brother to assimilate. But when Fredi turns eight, his parents announce that they are going to return to Tehran. Fredi doesn’t speak Farsi, and so he has a hard time adjusting to life in Iran. For Fredi, Iran feels like a place he should know but doesn’t. After only a year in Iran, the family decides to return to Phoenix.
Fredi’s story serves as another example of how, like Oscar and many of the boys, even though he isn’t technically an American citizen, he feels like he belongs in America much more than he belongs in Iran.
Back in Phoenix, Fredi feels at home, until revolution erupts in Iran and hostages are taken at the American embassy. Across the country, Iranians are targeted and attacked. One day during Fredi’s sophomore year, he is heading home on a bike after cross country practice when a truck full of teenagers veers him off the road. They jump out of the car and surround him, kicking him until members of his team start to run over.
Fredi’s high school experiences also highlight how Americans’ prejudices have always informed the way in which immigrants are treated. Even though Fredi is essentially American, the other students treat him as though he shares blame in the Iranian revolution and the American hostage crisis.
Fredi doesn’t tell his parents what had happened, instead focusing on running and his other outlet, building things. In eighth grade, he constructs a hovercraft out of notebook paper and balsa wood for a science fair. He catches the eye of Ann Justus, a science teacher at Camelback, who signs him up for her seminar.
Fredi’s early love of science and interest in construction are then capitalized on by a teacher. Justus becomes Fredi’s own crucial early mentor as she helps him develop his passion both for building and for teaching.
Justus’s seminar is structured much like Fredi’s will come to be: with an emphasis on hands-on learning and building things. With Justus’s encouragement, Fredi designs more ambitious hovercrafts, winning first place each year at the Central Arizona Regional Science and Engineering Fair. His final hovercraft is a six-hundred-pound, sit-on-top, gasoline-powered hovercraft that can reach speeds of twenty-five miles per hour.
Justus becomes a model for the kind of mentor that Fredi will eventually seek to be: encouraging, hands-on, and trying to make science and technology more and more fun as she challenges him to create larger hovercrafts.
To Fredi’s parents, the hovercraft represents a distraction from his schoolwork. They want him to get a medical degree. He attends college at Arizona State University, but he finds himself dropping in frequently on Justus’s seminar, helping younger students. Justus watches him and pulls him aside one day, telling him that he is wasting his time in pre-med. He’s meant to be a teacher.
Fredi starts to show himself to be a good mentor as he takes other younger students under his wing, much like he will later take Oscar, Cristian, Luis, and particularly Lorenzo under his wing in order to help them fulfill their potential.
Fredi laughs off Justus’s statement, but by his sophomore year he finds that he can’t focus on his classes anymore. He drops out of pre-med and applies to the architecture program, hoping it will be more hands-on. When his application is rejected, he is blindsided. The rejection is especially painful because his younger brother Ali has just graduated, is bound for the pre-med track at the University of California at San Diego, and will go on to get his medical degree at Johns Hopkins.
To Fredi’s parents, it seems like he is not fulfilling the American Dream in abandoning premed. But the American Dream truly represents the opportunity to build whatever life one chooses. And so, in this vein, following one’s passion is the ultimate distillation of the American Dream.
Justus advises Fredi again that he should be a teacher. Fredi tries to argue why he shouldn’t be a teacher: people don’t respect teachers and they don’t make a lot of money. Justus tells him he’d be making a difference in people’s lives—and more than that, he already is a teacher. Fredi returns to ASU and starts taking education courses. Fredi’s parents are extremely disappointed in his decision.
Justus is an important mentor for Fredi not only because she encourages his love of science and his inquisitive spirit, but also because she gives him the confidence and the permission to pursue the dream that will really make him happy in becoming a teacher.
In 1996, Fredi marries Pam Nuñez, the school psychologist. He coaches cross-country at the school and starts an electric car racing program. A year later, they have their first child, Bijan, and two years after Bijan they have Alex. Pam takes some time off to raise the kids. When Alex is two, he is diagnosed with pronounced autism. At the same time, Pam and Fredi see that Bijan is also having trouble in social settings, and he is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
Fredi then becomes a mentor in his own right, as he starts different programs in the school to get other kids passionate about science and math. He is particularly selfless in doing these things because he has two children who need special attention and also because he runs those programs for so little money.
Soon after the diagnosis, Fredi’s parents move out of the state, their relationship more strained than ever. Fredi has his kids to focus on, however. In 2002, he stops coaching and shuts down the electric car program. In 2003, Cristian, Oscar, and Lorenzo walk into his science classroom.
Even though Fredi is just about ready to let go of his extracurricular programs, the students get him excited about his work, showing some of the mutual benefits of mentorship as it allows Fredi to feel fulfilled through his students’ success.
In 1989, thirty-eight-year-old inventor Dean Kamen had already had a lucrative career. In his twenties, he invented a self-regulating syringe that was safer and more reliable than a human-administered shot. At thirty, he sold his company and used the money to create a private research facility in Manchester, New Hampshire. On the bottom floor of the facility, he constructed a science museum. He didn’t charge admission and built the exhibits himself, to give back to the community.
Dean Kamen’s story serves primarily to ask the question of how to get kids interested in math and science. At first, he builds a museum in order to give kids a series of attractions and ways to interact with a variety of experiments. But he will quickly realize that he may need something even more engaging.
One morning, a rainy Saturday, Kamen sees a big group of children visiting the museum. Kamen stops one of them and asks if there are other science experiments that the kid would like to see in the museum. The kid doesn’t know, and when Kamen asks if he knows any scientists or inventors, he doesn’t. Kamen asks more kids if they could name any living scientists or inventors. When he gets more negative responses, he asks the parents, who also cannot think of any.
Kamen’s inquiries point to the fading interest in math and science, which is particularly remarkable in this example because he is asking kids who have self-selected into going to a science museum. Regardless of their lack of broader knowledge, it seems clear to Kamen that these kids do have a serious interest in the experiments that he has around the museum.
Kamen returns to his office and realizes that children don’t need access to more information; they need more interest and excitement in the sciences. He decides to start a robot contest. The initial contest, which he names FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is held in February 1992; by 2001, it has expanded to 13 regional competitions with 25,000 teens competing on 520 teams.
Kamen then tries to rectify this situation of fading interest in science by creating the FIRST competition. He believes that that hands-on experiments and a competitive setting might make students more inspired to pursue math and science. Indeed, FIRST will go on to inspire the teens at the heart of Davis’s book—again pointing to the power of mentorship and role models when it comes to keeping students engaged.
Fredi sees a flyer about FIRST in 1999 and starts a small team at Carl Hayden in 2000. He realizes he has a problem, though: he doesn’t know computer science, and the robots need to be programmed. He decides to find some help.
Even though students may not know individually about the FIRST competition, when coupled with a teacher like Fredi who sees the value in making science fun, it can begin an entire lineage of students interested in robotics and other sciences. This again underscores the power of having even one adult invest energy in leadership and mentorship for the students in his or her life.
Allan Cameron grew up a mischievous kid in the fifties, setting up telephone wires between his and other kids’ houses. He has the shaggy appearance of a hippie, a look he cultivates after serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War. After his tour, he decides he no longer wants to take part in the military and works as an assistant to a philosophy professor at a community college in Arizona. The professor suggests he become a teacher.
Allan becomes another mentor to the Carl Hayden students, though his own journey mirrors theirs a little less than Fredi’s does. But like Fredi, his upbringing is unique, and he gains an interest in technology and radios early on—evidenced by his running telephone wires between houses. All of these background stories point to the power of childlike wonder and curiosity when it comes to encouraging interest in science.
Allan then gets a job in South Scottsdale, a pocket of poverty in an otherwise wealthy area of Phoenix. The fifth graders he teaches are unruly and disrespectful, and it seems that everyone has given up on them. Allan begins trying to discipline them with threats, but the class only gets rowdier. When he tries to explain the importance of education, one of the kids tells him that they are the worst kids in the school, almost with pride.
In this story, Allan also develops skills in dealing with kids from tougher backgrounds. This scene establishes the challenged his is up against, and underscores how the kids seem to take pride in behaving badly. By believing in them and caring about them, however, he will ultimately give them the confidence to be something other than “the worst kids in the school.”
The next day Allan says that everyone thinks that they’re jerks, and that they have to change that perception. He offers to teach them what he knows about war. Not to fight, but to march. The kids start to march around the school in perfect lockstep during lunch and recess. They establish a new reputation for themselves: having the most discipline.
This story also serves as an early example of how the friendships and bonds within a group can become a kind of mutual motivation, as these students encourage each other and spur each other to do the best that they can, in the same way the Carl Hayden students do.
In 1982, Allan starts a Ph.D. in elementary education, and is four years into the program when he hears about Carl Hayden becoming a magnet school. Allan’s Ph.D. opens up new and more prestigious possibilities for him, but he can’t stop thinking about the school, and how the students needed more help than those already in college.
Allan sees the value in making sure that every kid, regardless of their background, can get a quality education, and sees how he could really make a difference in the life of a kid who may not realize that they have an enormous amount of potential.
In 1987, Allan accepts a full-time teaching job in computer science at Carl Hayden and completes his Ph.D. in 1990. He starts programming and ham-radio clubs in the nineties and then signs on to start a robotics team with Fredi in 2000. He doesn’t speak Spanish, but most of the kids he meets at Carl Hayden are hungry to learn and willing to work hard, and he can’t imagine leaving them.
Like Fredi, Allan gets his own fulfillment from mentoring these students as it allows him to get kids interested in his own passions. He provides them with the knowledge and the opportunity to succeed that they might never have had before, again reflecting the book’s emphasis on the power of mentorship.
The Carl Hayden robotics team gets off to a slow start, but the kids who show up are thrilled to be a part of it—including Michael Hanck, who had taken Fredi’s marine science class as a freshman and joined the team the same year. Michael suggests that Cristian speak to Fredi about joining.
The robotics team becomes one of the ways that students get excited about math and science, as they have full control over what they build, but also maintain the guidance and support of Allan and Fredi.
Cristian steps into Fredi’s classroom in May 2003, after the FIRST competition has already taken place that year. But Fredi doesn’t want to disappoint Cristian, and so he tells him about the club’s next project: building a catapult to fire pumpkins on Halloween. Cristian is extremely excited and starts to hang around the science lab. Fredi is impressed both by Cristian’s book smarts and his ability to build things on the fly.
Fredi, just like Dean Kamen, sees how imperative it is to capture some of the innate curiosity and the creativity that the students have. School and science, it’s implied, should be as fun and exciting as those childhood projects—not just stuffy lessons in a classroom.
Cristian sees Lorenzo hanging around the lab and assumes he’s just another loud jokester. But Fredi sees that Lorenzo is simply a lost kid looking for a way to define himself. When Fredi notices Lorenzo lingering after class, watching Fredi feed the fish in the tanks around the classroom, Fredi asks if he wants to learn. Lorenzo is honored to be entrusted with any responsibility and learns how to feed the fish.
Fredi becomes a particularly good mentor to Lorenzo because Lorenzo, up until this point, doesn’t feel truly valued or valuable to any part of his life. By putting trust in Lorenzo, Fredi helps him start to gain confidence in the idea that he is capable of doing things.
Fredi then invites Lorenzo to McDonald’s. Lorenzo is speechless: no one has ever taken him to a restaurant before. At McDonald’s, Lorenzo stands nervously near Fredi and says he’ll have what Fredi is getting, unsure of what to order. When they sit down, Fredi tells Lorenzo about the robotics team, and the tools they get to use. Lorenzo is immediately captivated by Fredi’s description and joins the team.
Again, Fredi’s trip to McDonald’s with Lorenzo has a huge impact on him, because it makes him feel like someone believes in him, cares about him, and wants him to be a part of a group. The gift that Fredi gives him, and that his teammates also eventually give him, is that of self-worth.
A year earlier, in the summer of 2002, a group of Phoenix high school students from Wilson Charter High School visited Niagara Falls. They had converted a rowboat into a solar-powered dinghy, won a regional competition, and were sent to a national competition.
As will soon become clear, Davis brings up a story about students from Wilson Charter High School here to again highlight the dangers faced by undocumented students and also Hispanic students more generally, regardless of where they are and what they’re doing.
Niagara Falls was on the students’ list of sight-seeing places, and to get a full view they would need to go to Canada. A teacher, not wanting to take any risks, found an immigration agent and asked if kids with U.S. school IDs would be allowed to cross. The immigration agent then marched over to the kids and began quizzing them on their citizenship. Four of the kids had been brought across the border as children, and the agent detained them.
Even though the students are in the U.S., potentially going over to Canada, and even though they have achieved a major technical accomplishment and are simply on a school field trip, they are still discriminated against in the country they call home. This episode reminds the reader of the broader societal prejudices and tensions happening in the backdrop of the Carl Hayden students’ story.
The agents phoned the principal of the school and asked her to fax birth certificates for the four detained students. When she could not, proceedings began to deport the four students to Mexico. The legal wrangling dragged on for three years before a judge ruled that the students were unfairly targeted. The students were allowed to stay, but the threat was clear. Even a seemingly harmless summer science competition could bear life-altering risks.
Davis’s points highlight once again the ever-present dangers of being an undocumented kid in the U.S. They experience a particularly unjust fear because they have been brought to the U.S. as children and feel that the U.S. is their home, yet still worry that they could be ripped from it at any moment.
In the fall of 2003, Lorenzo and Cristian both sign up for the 7:00 a.m. robotics club class. Together with Michael Hanck, they begin to construct a massive catapult. As their designs grow outlandish, Fredi sees that the young students might need some leadership. He mentions to Oscar, who is in Fredi’s senior Marine Science Seminar, that there are students building a catapult in the club. Oscar agrees to check it out; he is looking for a new team to lead.
It is notable that instead of hampering their ideas, Fredi finds another student to help guide Cristian, Lorenzo, and Michael to slightly more practical inventions. That way they still maintain their sense of creativity, but they have a peer spurring them to make their ideas even better. This reiterates the power of teamwork.
Oscar is impressed with their designs but sees that the catapult they want to build is so big that it would require pulling a 120-pound weight back into firing position. They would need some extra muscle in order to fire it.
Oscar, knowing the importance of remaining optimistic and supportive, compliments them on their designs but also contributes to the team by making sure that their ideas are feasible.
The catapult is meant for the annual pumpkin hurling contest hosted by the local pumpkin patch. The day before the contest, Fredi tells the group that they will leave at six the next morning. Lorenzo accidentally sleeps in and misses the van by just two minutes. He’s furious with himself and his lack of discipline.
Lorenzo’s lack of discipline becomes a sore subject for Oscar in particular. But gradually, Lorenzo is able to prove that he has the same discipline as his teammates, and that they have made him a more dedicated member.
At the pumpkin field, neither Cristian nor Oscar miss Lorenzo much. Both of them think that there’s no excuse for being late. When the competition starts, it takes all three of them—Cristian, Oscar, and Michael—to arm the trebuchet. On their first try, the pumpkin flies about 100 feet. They add more weight and reach up to 150 feet, placing them in second. Everyone has a lot of fun, but they realize that it might be helpful to have someone a little bigger on the team.
The team’s need for a little bit more muscle is what leads them to Luis, but what is remarkable is that even though Luis isn’t necessarily there because of the same enthusiasm about science, he still learns the information and understands the technology just like the rest of the students do.
Luis Aranda is born a perfectly normal-sized six-pound baby in a shack in the city of Cuernavaca. His father, Pedro, had left to find work in the United States. His mother, Maria Garcia, works as a housecleaner for a Japanese woman, and takes Luis to work with her. Luis grows bigger and bigger, and the Japanese woman takes a liking to him. She knows that the family is struggling, and she asks to adopt Luis so that he might have a better life.
Luis’s life echoes that of the other students, and again illustrates the painful realities that often face immigrant families—who are forced to separate in the pursuit of a better life.
Maria Garcia can’t part with Luis, but she does consider how she might be able to give him a better life. Taking him to the United States seems like the only option. She, Luis, his grandfather, aunt, and two cousins all set off by bus. They walk through a hole in a chain-link fence on the border and take a taxi to Phoenix, where Pedro is. Eventually, Pedro is able to obtain permanent residency in the United States and get green cards for Maria Garcia and Luis.
Like many of the other mothers, Maria Garcia is spurred to take her son to the United States because she sees how limited Luis’s education would be in Mexico, and wants to be able to provide him with the chance for a better life. It is also worth noting that Luis’s green card makes him a lot safer in America than the other students, but it is unclear why or how his father is able to get one—highlighting once again some of the arbitrariness of the U.S. immigration system.
By sixteen, Luis is 205 pounds, six feet tall, and a quiet kid. He’s not particularly interested in school, but he goes because he understands the sacrifices that his parents have made for him to be there. To help support the family, he starts washing dishes at an Italian restaurant while he is in middle school.
Luis’s size and stature is what makes it hard for Luis to find many friends in school, but it is exactly what leads the other students to want him to join their team—an obstacle once again leading to opportunity.
The kitchen fascinates Luis, and he starts cooking at home as well. By high school, he is working as a short-order cook at a restaurant next to a bowling alley. In his senior year, he finds a better restaurant job in a Phoenix suburb. He is initially hired as a dishwasher, but one morning when the kitchen is overwhelmed he offers to help out with the cooking. His boss, Harold, is impressed with what he is able to cook and promotes him.
Luis holds jobs all through high school, and even though he may not have the same talents that the other boys possess, he is clearly a hard worker. This is one of the quintessential requisites of achieving the American Dream, but for Luis that dream will remain out of reach.
At the beginning of senior year, Luis enrolls in Fredi’s Marine Science Seminar, which is meant to be an opportunity for seniors to work independently on a yearlong project. He hopes it will be an easy class, and Fredi offers up the chance of working on robotics for his project. Luis thinks that it is nice that the team seems to want his help. He doesn’t know Cristian or Lorenzo, but he does know Oscar, who is friendly to him despite his intimidating size and silence. When Oscar tells him that the team is going to build something great, Luis agrees to join.
Unlike the other boys, Luis’s desire to join the robotics team is not spurred by an innate interest in science. But it does appear that Luis is searching for a group of friends, and the robotics team becomes just that as they build each other up and inspire each other to be better students, scientists, and people.
In the summer of 2003, just before the start of the catapult project, Fredi and Allan travel to Monterey, California to learn more about a new robotics competition hosted by the MATE Center there. The competition is centered on remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), which will have to complete tasks underwater. The trip fosters a new friendship between them, and afterward they call each other often. They tell each other how ridiculous it would be to start an underwater-robotics competition in a poor school in the middle of the desert. But, they agree to do it anyway.
In the same way that the robotics team allows Cristian, Lorenzo, Luis, and Oscar to forge a friendship, the team also sparks the friendship between Fredi and Allan as they find a common goal in giving the kids a fun way to learn. And despite the fact that they have so few resources, Fredi and Allan’s simple belief that the students might get something out of the competition is what ultimately enables the team to win the championship.