A few weeks ago, I was standing in the wings of the awards ceremony for a youth science competition I have been connected to for the better part of two decades. The closing ceremony, with the students in their jackets and dresses, is meant to honor everyone’s efforts with the formality and significance the competitors deserve. There are bright lights, handshakes on a stage, and a photographer capturing the students at their best in front of a flattering backdrop. I was waiting in the wings as part of a tradition I have adopted from one of my peers – shaking the hands of the medal-winning students in the event I supervise. As the person who wrote the rules, designed the exam, and watched the teams exert their academic selves in the moment, it’s a tiny nod of acknowledgement I can provide to the hundreds of hours of effort it would taken to end up on that stage.
I had taken my place next to the ropes blocking off the official photo backdrop and watched as the few events leading up to mine were announced. Names would be called, sections of the audience would erupt with screams, and two students would leap up and make their way across the field house. By the time they reached the stage, their ecstatic running had calmed to controlled strides. They would mount the steps as well-dressed and dignified competitors, calmly receive their medals, shake the hands of the organizational leadership, smile at the audience, and get herded offstage into the photo area. The photographer would arrange them and snap a photo of a dozen bright students looking as capable and composed as the world would expect them to be. Then the photographer would send them along.
In that moment, the students would transform. They would erupt into the manic teens and pre-teens they had been back when their names were first announced. They squealed. They hugged. They jumped up and down in their pantsuits and heels. Some cried. Coaches or parents sitting close enough would melt out of the audience for just a moment to share a hug or high-five. Then, they would all head back to their seats, the master of ceremonies having long-since moved on to announcing the next events on the list.
I found myself wishing someone had secretly hired a second photographer to capture those moments, the ones just after all of the guards were lowered and people surrendered to absolute exhaustion and glee. I found myself wishing that we could share those emotions with other kids around the country, rather than just the formal shots without a single lapel out of place.
Maybe it was my own exhaustion from the day, but my next thoughts had nothing to do with youth STEM or the room I was standing in, but Game of Thrones. Specifically, the “Game of Thrones: The Last Watch” documentary that had been released the week after the series finale. While the people who made that documentary could have followed the main actors who have dominated screens and billboards for the past decade, they didn’t. Instead they followed the experiences of the people responsible for construction, design, makeup, stunts, and every logistical detail that made the scenes everyone already knows so well possible. Those bits of snow that dusted the steps in that significant scene? There was a snow guy responsible for that. That amazing location that transported audiences out of reality and into fantasy? Someone had to find that location, get permission to use it, figure out how to keep people safe when it flooded, and make sure there was enough space to house and feed everyone involved. Those extras in the background of every scene getting clobbered and rained on and walking the same section of steps 97 times? They are just as passionate about being there as the actors with title cards. And this enthusiasm, this collective support for creating the bigger piece, was never mocked. It was honored.
All of this flashed through my mind as I turned my back on the stage and walked past the people filling the field house. I wished that somehow the formal shots that will grace websites and be sent to sponsors could be turned into those photomosaics so popular in the 90’s. I wanted pictures of the view from the stage – the thousands of coaches, parents, teammates, teachers, and siblings who made the trip and sat in the sweltering and overcrowded field house. I wanted pictures of the zombified volunteers getting up at four in the morning to start the impound for mechanical events promptly at five. I wanted to embed a video clip of teammates sprinting across campus to grab a forgotten binder and a coach waiting outside of a classroom with a meal to make sure her team with four events in a row had a few moments to eat.
Along with each candid shot zooming in on a pair of students competing in their event, I wanted a picture of the frantic adult standing at the FedEx counter trying to get the machine across the country on time and in working condition. I wanted a map of all the alumni and volunteers who had flown or driven in from across the country to take on the thankless task of grading in the few hours between the last event and the first award. I wanted a spreadsheet of the logistical magic involved with placing dozens of events with different needs in specific rooms and labs and gyms across the campus in the span of a few hours. I wanted a panoramic view of the sweaty and exhausted score volunteers double and triple checking every point from every event.
Intellectually, I know that this kind of army backs any person or accomplishment that ends up as a cover shot. Astronauts talk about the teams of people that trained them, built their instruments, and kept them alive. Actors try to speed-talk their way through awards speeches in an effort to acknowledge even of a fraction of those involved with what the public sees as their personal accomplishment. But somehow it is just so simple to marvel at the individual athlete, scientist, student, or CEO who ends up as the face of a truly epic collaboration. Maybe if we get better at seeing the teams behind our own moments, we can help bring the people who will go on to support the next great accomplishment out of the wings. We can also let the world see how valued the people in those positions should be. They may not want a moment in the spotlight, but our genuine thanks are more than deserved.