Reporting from Sacramento
The last bell had rung for the day, and the campus of San Fernando High School was all but deserted. But there, by a bright yellow picnic table, was Raudel Hernandez in the midst of an eloquent speech, thoughtfully explaining the meaning of dreams.
"Every dream is open to more than one interpretation," said the bespectacled, shaggy-haired 11th-grader, mixing the words of Freud with his own. "It's up to the dreamer to decide."
He raises his arms as he talks, looking out as though he's on the stage of an imaginary auditorium. Then the 16-year-old stumbles and fidgets with his hat.
"Don't think of the hundreds of times you've already done it," advises Jeff Pierson, the coach of San Fernando's Academic Decathlon team, who approached as Raudel spoke. "Think of the five times you have left."
"This is it," he added.
And indeed it was: Months of practice, hours upon hours of studying, and this was the Academic Decathlon team's final meeting before it left for Sacramento, joining more than 60 other teams from across California for the state competition that ran through the weekend.
San Fernando is one of 11 high schools from Los Angeles Unified School District that made it to the state competition this year. L.A. Unified is known for its strong showing at state and national competitions. El Camino Real, a perennial top contender, had its team's picture taken with President Obama in the Oval Office after winning last year's nationals.
This is the first time San Fernando has made it this far. It has come close — it just missed making it to the state championship last year. So this is a big step for the group of nine A, B and C students who bonded through the intense practice it took to get here.
"We won for ourselves a long time ago," Candy Macias, 18, said, "when we started acting like a team. Right, guys?"
The team includes seniors Jesus Sanchez, Matthew Ramirez, Gus Villela and Candy; juniors Isaac Marin, Maria Duran and Raudel; and sophomores Selina Ayon and Luis Albarran
They came to the Academic Decathlon in different ways — Matthew says he was simply bored; Jesus wanted the free T-shirt. They've got their running inside jokes. They poke fun at each other like siblings. Pierson, an English teacher who has coached Academic Decathlon for seven years, sometimes has to wrangle them like a surrogate father (but he also lugged an XBox onto the plane for them and is in on their jokes).
The team has spent months cloistered in their classroom to study. The rest of the school started paying a little attention this year. The school newspaper, El Tigre, proclaimed above the fold that "Aca Deca Has All the Answers." And Pierson said other teachers have been particularly excited about the team's success and go out of their way to tell him if they've got one of "his kids" in their classes.
The state competition — their goal all year — began Saturday with a slew of tests, and the team was all nerves.
A hotel ballroom became a massive classroom, with rows of tables seating about 500 competitors. They had to answer questions on art, music, math and social studies, with the meet centered on the theme of the Great Depression.
Finally, the hours of testing ended. They shuffled upstairs to Pierson's room, exhausted, and piled onto his bed for a team meeting.
"I had to keep telling myself, 'OK, one more question, one more question,' " Candy said.
Maria said the morning was akin to a plane at take-off: She was tense, and her stomach felt as if it were in her throat. Maria leveled off — finally — when she found something to laugh at: A competitor pointed out that another team had the misspelling "decathalon" on its T-shirts.
Pierson asked them how they felt. How did this competition stack up against the regionals? Most of them were more confident. A few said they were even less nervous. The coach smiled. "It's anybody's game," he said of this year's competition, and for newcomers like San Fernando, that means they've got a good shot.
On Sunday, they gave speeches on topics they had selected and had been working on for months. This is where Raudel cited Freud, and Jesus and Lui talked about music.
On Sunday evening, the team participated in the Super Quiz, the only public event. L.A. Unified's Franklin and Marshall tied for the top spot, according to a preliminary tally.
The teams don't yet know how they did overall. The San Fernando students will dress again in the business attire they had worn to their speeches and will attend an awards banquet Monday during which the overall winner will be announced. That team will go on to the national competition in North Carolina starting April 27.
Win or lose, it doesn't matter to this group. As Maria puts it, they put in the time and the energy to nab what they had barely missed last year. They were in Sacramento, they stayed in the ritzy hotel, and they had their chance to compete.
With the end of the Super Quiz, the competition was complete. They clogged the steps out of the stands, smiling and tousling one another's hair. Pierson joined in a group hug.
They had made it.