Wednesday, May 12, 1999

Odyssey team world-class as kids, too

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Seventh-graders are full of surprises. They are at an awkward age, when they can act like kids but think like adults.

        One minute they can be giggling about the opposite sex. The next they can be discussing current events like elder statesmen.

        They're young enough to be thrilled by their own achievements and old enough to see how their achievements can change the way people view them.

        I learned all this during Monday's lunch with seven seventh-graders at Our Lady of Visitation school. We met over brown-bag lunches and surprisingly tasty cafeteria food for this week's “Lunch with Cliff.” That's where I share a midday meal with people at their regular dining spot to hear what's on their minds.

        For these seventh-graders, their usual lunch place doubles as a gym for the 860-student school in Mack. At lunchtime, the room is a noisy, crowded place where kids can be just kids or act grown up.

        “Lunch is a time to strike up serious conversations,” Andrew Reckers told me as he munched on an apple.

        “We talk about world affairs.”

        I thought he was kidding. But the 13-year-old assured me he was serious. “We talk about Kosovo,” he continued. “The bombing has gone too far. We don't want a war.”

        Six heads nodded in agreement.

        The massacre at Columbine High School is another frequent topic for lunchtime discussion.

        “It's scary to think about,” said 12-year-old Jared Weitzel. “That could happen at any school. We worry it could happen here.

        “Every school has kids who get teased and made fun of,” he added.

        Emphatically poking the air with his fork, Jared declared: “But we would never think of killing anyone.”

State champs
        The seven kids sitting with me know about being teased. Classmates kidded them when they joined the school's Odyssey of the Mind team.

        The members were teased for being smart, nerdy and “not cool, because Odyssey of the Mind is not about sports,” said Ryan Roettker, 13.

        I looked up and down the table of fresh faces. No nerds. Just kids eager to learn and share what they know.

        What they shared was pride in their team. And they have every right to be proud of their accomplishments in the prestigious academic competition that stresses problem-solving, environmental awareness, teamwork and artistic creativity.

        Coached by two members' moms, Julie Roettker and Ginny Lenahan, the Visitation team won the regional and state tournaments. They will compete at the World Finals, May 26-29 at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

        Teased at first, things got better when the team started bringing home the trophies. “Those trophies are huge,” 13-year-old Craig Kotte told me. “After we won, kids thought the team was pretty cool.”

        While Craig spoke, an adjacent table of girls eavesdropped. I asked whether the team's success made it easy for them to meet girls. Three of Craig's teammates, Rick Baudendistel, Brian Lenahan and Eric Kersting, all 13, laughed and blushed.

        Craig turned the reddest. “We want to meet the team of seventh-grade girls from Sweden at the World Finals,” he said. “We hope they like American guys.”

        Boyish laughter swept over the table like a gentle spring breeze. I saw the seven teammates elbowing each other and smiling. They were acting like a bunch of seventh-grade boys. Mischievous. But innocent.

        What a refreshing sight.

        They were the kind of kids who don't often make the news. Other than the parents and teachers who cherish them, they are the kind of kids — the majority — who the rest of us need to remember fill our schools.

        I came to this lunch thinking seventh-graders —kids going through crazy changes, confused by the present and mixed up about the future. But my lunch companions this day were clear-headed and determined.

        “Being a seventh-grader is great,” Craig told me. “This year gave us memories to keep forever and a future we can look forward to.”

        I wished them well at the competition, knowing the rest of us have already won when we have children like this to call our own.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.