Hundreds of high school students are milling about. Some have determination and concentration etched in their faces. Others are madly popping M&Ms to break the tension. Still others, overcome by a strong sense of impending doom, are madly studying page after page of notes.
Competitors size up the opposition with confidence and fear.
"I hear Los Al (Alamitos) is really tough this year."
"Sunny Hills has studied since last April."
"The best ones are usually well-dressed."
"Why is the Marina team wearing viking helmets?"
It is 8 a.m. Feb. 6 at Westminster High School. This is the 20th annual Orange County Academic Decathlon (OCAD) championship. This is the marathon day of testing that, eight hours later, will put an end to months, even years of mental training for teams from 24 schools. This is the big time.
The academic decathlon is a product of Orange County, begun in 1968 by Robert Peterson, Orange County's superintendent of schools. Expanding statewide in 1979 and then nationwide in 1982, and now even internationally, academic decathlons now involve more than 4,000 schools annually.
At the Orange County competition, teams are composed of nine students competing on three academic levels: Honor-level students have grade-point averages of 3.75 to 4.00, scholastic competitors' GPAs range from 3.00 to 3.74, and the varsity members have GPAs up to 2.99.
Peterson said the competition breeds "highly capable adults with comprehensive knowledge of a wide range of subjects and an all-important ability to communicate that knowledge."
The decathlon consists of 10 events spanning the range of academics from economics to fine arts, from math to poetry. "I live by those 10 words (events)," said honors competitor Paul Cash, a Foothill High School senior.
Individual written tests are given in six subjects. Economics covers both fundamental economic concepts and the fine points of consumer resource management. Math touches on virtually every level, from algebraic polynomials to differential calculus. The science test focuses on the laws of kinematics (motion in the abstract), momentum and human health.
Basic elements of artistic and musical composition come under questioning as well as specific knowledge of 32 romantic composers and artists, from Eugene Delacroix to Francisco Goya to Hector Berlioz. Social science questions are based on the ages of Reason and Romanticism, focusing on the French Revolution, Napoleon's rise and fall, the Industrial Revolution and the turmoil brought on by other revolts in Europe from 1750 to 1900. Language and literature scours Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" as well as Edgar Allen Poe short stories and poetry by William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Those are some of the reasons for the years of preparation.
"I've learned more in OCAD than I do in all my other classes combined," said scholastic division competitor Fred Chambers, a senior at El Toro High.
And if that battery of tests is not sufficient, the competitors also are evaluated on their communication ability through essays, interviews and speeches.
With only 50 minutes to write an impeccable composition, the competitors first glance over their subjects:
"Comment on one of the following quotes:
'Assassination has never changed the history of the world.'--Benjamin Disraeli.
'There's no dignity quite so impressive and no independence quite so important as living within your means.'--Calvin Coolidge."
Speech judges looked for "confidence, organization and presentation skills," noted veteran evaluator Katherine Morton. Each student presents a five-minute prepared speech on the topic of his or her choice and then is asked to speak extemporaneously for two minutes.
Ben Fulton, a senior scholastics-division competitor from Marina High, has benefited from two years of forensics. But doesn't having to make an extemporaneous speech still frighten him? "That will consist of many ums and ahs," he said, tipping his viking helmet and walking confidently into the speech room.
"I don't think I did too hot," lamented Mike Dewberry, a senior scholastics-division competitor from Brea-Olinda High as he left the speech room. "When they asked me to talk about high school in 2001, all I did was rip on the old teachers."
Probably not a good idea considering a majority of OCAD judges are former or current teachers.
The ability to be appealing to the judges is of utmost importance during the interview competition. The participants must reassemble their wits after testing and drown their nervousness in a sea of outward calm and charm. This is the hot seat.
"Hello, I'm Kurt Spurgin. How do you do?"
The varsity student from Los Alamitos began his interview with a hearty handshake, hiding his anxiety behind a large grin. Spurgin scored well with the judges. "Wasn't that fun!" they said as he left the room. "What a neat kid."