Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream.
On one level, the title refers to the collection of materials like PVC pipe and inexpensive railroad salvage motors that propel a home-made robotic observation vehicle assembled by four students at a low-income, minority high school in West Phoenix. It is also applicable to these disadvantaged students who improbably end up winning a national robotics competition besting well-funded teams from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Monterey Peninsula College. There’s nothing about the modest if not challenged family backgrounds and the academic records of these four students – Luis, Lorenzo, Oscar, and Christian – that would have enabled anyone to predict such success.
They succeeded in part because they were not able to fathom how bright and well-supported were the engineering students from prestigious technology schools against whom they would compete. David didn’t know how big Goliath was or even that he existed. Their success was also attributable to a number of other factors: two teachers who cajoled them into staying with the project and helped them to build a sense of espirit de corp despite their temperamental differences. Each member of the team also brought to the project a spatial-mechanical intelligence and improvisational skills that were honed from watching poor family members and neighbors keep a beater car running or a window air-conditioning unit functioning. When their robot sprung a leak in the hours before competition, one team member used a drug-store purchased tampon to absorb the water in the control chamber. Among other challenges that this book makes to the public education system, it points to the psychologist Robert Sternberg’s complaint that our schools fail to address intelligences (mechanical, inter-personal, natural) other than the verbal and quantitative.
While the underwater, robotic observation device that they assembled couldn’t hold a design candle to some of the others in the competition, they did manage to accomplish most of the ten tasks that each team was given. They racked up the most point in measuring the length of the underground miniature submarine, extracting a substance extracted from a “barrel,” and probing the inside of the vessel to be able to report the sighting of a “captain’s bell.” Furthermore, in the “classroom portion” of the competition, they were able to explain the processes of construction and observation as well as their better-schooled competitors.
The 2014 book by Wired writer Joshua Davis recounts the competition from 2004 when two of the team were seniors and two were juniors. The book is in the same sub-genre as books and movies like Stand and Deliver, the 1988 film that pays tribute to inspiration math teacher Jaime Escalante and the drop-out prone Hispanic students who learn advanced calculus despite their initial lack of interest and low self-appraisal. Davis’s book does not lionize the teacher-mentors in the same way that the Ramon Menendez film lionizes Escalante. Yet in some ways “ex-hippie” Allan Cameron and Ferdi Lajvardi are more heroic. Both have families, work for low wages at Carl Hayden Community High School and both commute long distances to their workplace. Lajvardi, born to Iranian exiles, is quite admirable. He has disappointed his professional parents who wanted him to pursue a medical career. Furthermore he’s dealing with two challenged children, one deeply autistic and the other an Asperger’s Syndrome child. His empathy for the oft-ridiculed minority Mexicans comes from his experiences as a bullied Iranian child during the years of the American hostage episode at the American embassy in Tehran.
This would be a feel-good story if the book concluded with Section Three. It would also be a case study in the conclusions of psychologist Paul Tough’s research into the sources of student success. Tough’s thesis is that character, especially “grit” (tenacity and reciliance), is as important as intellectual acumen. But in Section Four Davis follows the fortunes of the four after their high school graduations. [Thus the 10 year gap between the year in which the trophy was won and the book’s publication.] Although one would expect a bright future for the four team members who, after taking first place, looked out at the Pacific in Santa Barbara flushed with pride, their ensuing lives are complicated and often dispiriting. Tellingly, Davis compares the fortunes of Luis, Lorenzo, Christian and Oscar with those of the members of the MIT team. Ten years on, these children of privilege are working at high-paying engineering jobs for Exxon Mobile and NASA, the sponsor of the competition.
While the offish Lorenzo, a misfit among misfits, finds a good job as a sous chef in a fancy Phoenix restaurant, Luis works as a janitor who caters events on the weekends and Christian is a reclusive inventor. It is Oscar who commands the most attention because he was the leader of the robotics group as well as the ROTC chapter of Hayden High School. As much as Allan and Lajvardi, he drove his teammates on. Because of the circulation of the Hayden High success story through the national media, funds are raised that enable Oscar to complete an engineering degree at Arizona State University. But all the while Oscar has had to operate under the radar for he is illegal, brought to this country when his parents came in without authorization and obligated to leave when he turned 18. Long distance trips to competition in California are fraught with the possibility that he might be deported if discovered through a routine traffic stop.
The entry of these men into their adult years coincides with if a heightened if not hysterical response to the number of illegal Mexicans flooding into this country taking jobs away from American workers, bringing with them the drug trade, and increasing crime. And for an illegal there’s no more tenuous place to be than in Maricopa County, Arizona where Sheriff Joe Arpaio has used routine traffic violations to identify illegals eligible for deportation. In addition, Arizona has been a state whose legislatures have endeavored to place restrictions on and denials of access to education, public aid, and medical care for the children of the undocumented. Presidential Candidate Donald Trump has embraced Arpaio and has made anti-immigrant rhetoric a big cornerstone of his domestic policy.
There’s no question that the toxic social and political environment foils the promise of Santa Barbara. Deprived of their high school mentors who understood their deprivations, tolerated their idiosyncrasies, and ran interference for them, they struggled. But it’s also true that reasons both good and bad these four have turned their back on the competitive, meritocratic game embraced by their well-to-do competitors from MIT.
The Dream Act has been an endeavor to help young people like the talented Oscar to get a fast track to citizenship by demonstrating the ability to complete an education, become a productive member of the workforce, and even demonstrate patriotism through military service. While Illinois Senator Dick Durbin has presented Dream Act legislation, the Republican legislature has resisted, preferring comprehensive rather than piecemeal immigration reform. They also fear that this path to citizenship will only encourage more illegal immigration from Central America. The oppositionists remind us that we should not be taken in by the shiny but rare and unrepresentative story of the Hayden High team. This June marks the four year anniversary of Barack Obama’s executive order that blocks the deportation of students like Oscar who are of good character and pursuing an education.
Candidate Trumps vow to build a wall and candidate Clinton’s denunciation of this un-American gesture indicates that immigration policy will be front and center in the debates and in voter’s minds. While many minorities find Trump’s xenophobia intolerable, there is a significant slice of the “legal” Central American community that endorses his plan. Davis’s book gives us an opportunity to talk about the vexing problem of immigration and to do so with vivid accounts of four complex human beings.