The Things That No One Can Imagine – A Reflection of my National History Day Experience

Chris Pondoc

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I’ve always been a “math” type of guy. I enjoy puzzles, computation, and the challenge of utilizing both memorized formulas and ingenious intuition to solve some of the hardest problems and to find some of the most beautiful solutions. For years, it has been somewhat of my art form, a way of representing the obvious, the odd, and the unimaginable. Furthermore, as a quantitative subject, there has always been one answer – not necessarily one way to get the right answer, but only one possible solution. No nuances, no bias or inferences, just numbers. Yet, when I think of the things that have changed my own persona over the course of my academic years, mathematics is not the end all be all.

In middle school, I was introduced to the National History Day (NHD) competition. Every year, students would have to respond to a theme by presenting a historical topic and interpreting its importance in history. Students can choose from different presentation mediums, such as websites, performances, and documentaries, and have the chance to compete with students from all across the country who had a passion for history and storytelling. Certainly quite the contrary to the competitive mathematics.

My 6th-grade year was, as some people call it, a “trial run”. Having no clue what I was getting myself into, I chose a topic that I was familiar with but had no clear connection to the theme at hand. The large amount of research I had to do was overwhelming, and compared to my quirky math problems, I did not find that much enjoyment in it. My occasional jubilation, quite frankly, would come from being with other competing individuals from my school. While I had not always shared the same love and passion for history as my peers, I found that we all shared a thirst for knowledge, a fire for competition, and the desire to be normal kids in every way else – I found myself some people who I could vaguely call my “friends”.

Looking back on things, I wasn’t really even considering competing the next year – I just didn’t feel as if NHD was the type of competition I was fit for, nevertheless one I could win. However, upon hearing that a group of my friends had placed significantly high as 6th graders in the state competition, I saw a window of opportunity – a chance to make a name for myself and for my peers, and to go farther than any other group in the history of our school before. Despite the reluctance of our teacher, my friends and I decided to come together and form a “super team” – not only because of the fact that we had a large amount of experience and skills but also because of the size of our group and the diversity of our strengths and weaknesses. It would be an interesting risk, but one that would pay off big time.

As always, our first task was to choose a topic. Going through a variety of various historical figures and events, anywhere from the historical people pertinent to the creation of the Big Bang Theory to even Vasili Arkhipov, a man who prevented a possible nuclear war. After all of this brainstorming, one person came on top – a man named Alan Turing, whose work lead to the decryption of the German Enigma code (which saved millions of lives and cut the war short in the process) as well as a new line of research that ultimately lead to the development of the modern computer and the study of artificial intelligence.

Clearly, based on my love of my math, I loved the idea of being able to study Turing – his contributions to my life and the world of many others is immense, and I felt that there was no better way of honoring his leadership and legacy than by presenting his accomplishments and achievements. But really, something else about his story, an idea that perhaps still confuses me to this day, made everyone on our team just have a connection with him, a connection we all would not feel with any other topic we had researched. Maybe it was the fact that he committed suicide as a result of being gay and having to deal with chemical castration; maybe it was because of his other fields of study, such as in-depth analysis of chemical morphogenesis; or maybe it was because of how despite his quirkiness and awkwardness, was able to be such a great leader and leave such an important legacy in the process.

The next few months were spent avidly researching, conducting interviews, and aggregating content to place on the website. Assuredly, it took us some time to get into the groove of things – while we had all known each other, we still had to get used to each other’s tendencies, utilizing our strengths to contribute to the project while delegating tasks to other individuals who were better at other things. The research process was enlightening – I learned a lot about Turing, more information than I had really known about any piece of history in all my years of learning, and began to become a better thinker, writer, and even technological creator.

Amidst all of the research process was a genuine feeling of having fun – and no, I don’t mean citing our 100th source or figuring out a bug to a program, but being with other people and experiencing great things and making genuine memories. Throughout this journey, I developed great bonds with every single one of my teammates as well as our teacher advisor. They were relationships that extended past the classroom into our own personal and social lives, and while not everyone in my group might feel the same way as me, I definitely think that I changed the most – from being this very meek, doubtful kid, I became a stronger, more confident, and more outspoken young man. This may just be a result of time and growing up as a whole, but I don’t think my life would be where it is if it weren’t for those four individuals.  Plus, I realized that life was not all about math, or even logic and algorithmic thinking – life, just like literature and history and writing, has nuances and can be interpreted in various ways. This may have lead to this notion of me being fairly sentimental and too hung up on the past, but to me, it represents a way of feeling and a way of feeling that I had never employed until then.

Eventually, we got past the county competition and arrived at the state competition. As much as I felt like we had a lot at stake, we were still relatively new to the competition, especially with a playing field filled with groups that had worked together in the past and had even more experience than us at this level. And yet, somehow, someway, we did it. I’ll let this excerpt from an essay I wrote as a freshman tell the story from the moment we first won:

“I stood up, smacked my chair in genuine ecstasy, and proceeded with my group towards the stage. As I walked across the stadium floor, I could smell the strong scent of the hardwood floor, and also saw an emphatic crowd surrounding us, with cameras flashing and our parents and teachers crying. All eyes were on us and on our journey to the stage.

As my medal was placed around my neck, the strap felt silky, releasing the tension in my body and creating a serene feeling that filled my brain with the same memories and sentiments I had felt just a year ago. I then looked at the medal itself, whose figure was shiny and sleek. Although it was no different from the medal from the previous year, my reflection in the medal was not the same: rather, it had transformed into something brighter, more elegant, and more golden; it was simply extraordinary.”

I will admit, hyperbole was heavily used throughout this two paragraph section; however, the feelings are still authentic. A milestone that big, and quite frankly improbable for five young 7th graders is something that I am still proud of to this day. Furthermore, perhaps what was best was that I got to do it with the best team I’ve ever been a part of, commemorating an individual who should forever be remembered.

While we never found true success at the national level of the competition, making it that round was an accomplishment in and of itself, while the journey was even more rewarding. Last year, I once again competed in National History Day, but this time without three of the people in our original group due to their commitment to other extracurriculars. With more experience, the two of us left got all the way to 7th place out of over 200 websites at the national level, with even more websites at the state, district, and school levels. There were some times that I missed the experience of being with my other group mates, but I learned to have an even larger fire for the competition, as well as contributed more to the bulk of the project. Only time will tell what our ceiling is for this year’s competition…

It feels weird knowing that it has been over 3 years since our team first came together and went on our remarkable journey. As time has passed, a lot of things have changed regarding the scope of the relationships and interactions among the individuals in our group. Regardless of this, I am forever a changed person because of this adventure, with every memory with every person etched into my brain. As much as I can attribute this feeling to the National History Day competition and the opportunity that it gave to our group, this memory is less about the milestone and more about the trek. And with that being said, I believe this story made all of us believe in one thing: Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

(From Left to Right: Jamie Roan, Chris Pondoc, Nikolas Struntz, Hannah Whang, and Sydney Robinson. Picture was taken at 2016 National History Day Competition, where the team was the recipient of the Outstanding State Entry Award for the State of Maryland in the Junior (Middle School Division))

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The Things That No One Can Imagine – A Reflection of my National History Day Experience