A Founder Makes a Mistake
Many Decathletes are lucky enough to compete multiple times. I was lucky enough to have that chance, but not wise enough to take it: I dropped out of the program as a junior. Mostly, I was scared of giving a speech. The team I left behind went on to take second in the nation. When I returned as an incoming senior, with a different coach and new teammates, I did so determined not to squander this opportunity a second time. That determination, plus a jaywalking ticket, ultimately led to DemiDec.
The First DemiDec Team
Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how different Decathlon was in the 1980s and early 1990s. Curriculum booklets didn’t exist. Private organizations similar to DemiDec were emerging, including the very first, Acadec Resources and Testing, but their products were restricted primarily to practice exams. Every event but Super Quiz was entirely research-based, and every team had to do all that research on its own.
Our new coach, Dr. Berchin, was a legend at Taft High School. He had won the national competition in 1989 (evidently affecting the local real estate market) then mysteriously stopped coaching. He only returned my year because the coach who had replaced him, Mr. Wilson, had left the country after his own team’s second place finish.
When he first assembled us in his room, Dr. Berchin shared that he was coming back for only one reason—because he knew our team could win nationals.
We didn’t know that, and assumed it to be very unlikely, with no returners, no varsities and a late start. But he had gravitas; he had credibility. We believed him. We read the outlines together, methodically. We glanced through a brochure advertising a national competition in Newark, New Jersey—then set that aside for nine months. We had to win city before we could even start dreaming of winning state.
I watched with great admiration as he recruited two very strong varsities—one his own student, Chris, the other a peer college counselor with a cool name and interesting habits: Sage. He persuaded them that they belonged. He persuaded all of us.
That summer, he taught us that to win we would need not just to study, but to determine what to study. He sent us on research missions to local college libraries; he inspired us to form a study circle and teach one another economics from college textbooks. He motivated us not only to find the right facts to learn but to create efficient ways of learning them. And that’s, in another sense, where DemiDec began. I composed miniature resource kits in different subjects, from chemistry to the history of the former Yugoslavia. They looked a little like DemiDec’s cram kits do now: big, bold headings, mid-sized print. Later we wrote our own quizzes in the different events. (We also hid relevant books at local libraries, but that’s a slightly more shameful story.)
While a far cry from the Complete Course of Studies, those first efforts pointed at what would come later.
The Moment and Past
In the weeks leading up the city competition, we studied. We rehearsed our speeches. We tangled with the school police. We debated dinner plans (until our parents began catering). But mostly, we studied—each in his or her own room, sometimes well past midnight. Dr. Berchin had convinced us by then that if we tried our hardest we might win—but also that if we didn’t try our hardest, we would lose.
It happened as he told us it would. At Super Quiz, we tied for first place with our top rival, Marshall—a team with its own great coach and a fierce disposition. For ten days, we weren’t sure of the overall outcome. We were reduced to nervously drawing comic strips and projecting individual scores. We had a pool going. Then, on November 30, at the Westin Bonaventure, the official results were announced, one event at a time. By the fourth event, it began to look pretty good; when we took seven of the top nine individual spots, it was certain. We had scored 50,515 points, the first team ever to do so; Marshall, about 44,000. We had never seriously imagined breaking 50,000, had been aiming for 45,000. We were bewildered, overjoyed. A photographer snapped a picture in which half of us were off our feet and all of us were blurry with motion, even Dr. Berchin. We called it the Moment. We were on our way.
After that, we went on to win state and nationals. We had other moments, but they were all lower-case.
Along the way we became friends with our rivals from West; they mingled with us on stage in Stockton; it was the closest thing possible to a joint victory. Later they surprised us at the airport just before we left for Newark, bringing us a poster and wishes of good fortune. They didn’t know that we had tried to raise funds to bring them with us.
Our friendship with West underscored what had grown increasingly clear to us about the meaning of the competition. There’s no way to put this that isn’t melodramatic, nay, sappy: we came to understand that what mattered most to us was the time we were spending together. We had secretly painted our coach’s room, been arrested a second time, survived an earthquake. We had carried a toilet up a flight of stairs and put it on a seating chart. As Decathletes we had a special bond, a quirkiness. We had an inner alpaca.
DemiDec was born of two things, then. Knowledge of a successful way to prepare for the Decathlon, yes. That was one, and it ramifies into all our test prep products today. But the other mattered more. A desire to communicate what had made the year so special for us. A dream not just of writing footnotes, but of making DemiDec more than a footnote—not just what came after we competed, but what came of our competing.
From Decathlon to DemiDec
It was about six weeks after our national competition that I proposed to one of my teammates that we “make DemiDec real.” We were in the parking lot of a furniture store on a street called Sherman Way. We had just paid jaywalking fines at a Van Nuys courthouse. Before long, we were chanting what would become an early DemiDec mantra—focus on victory.
The next day we secured our coach’s blessing, and we were off and running.
That summer, we transformed our experience into an enterprise—working long nights, playing Ultimate Frisbee, drinking smoothies, and counting on our parents and our teammates for support. In mid-August, we were close enough to finishing that sent out our first informational mailing. ” In recent years,” we wrote, “Academic Decathlon has become a way of life.”
It had certainly become ours—and now, with the Scholar’s Cup, we hope that way of life can touch students around the world.
Our first product was imperfect. We didn’t know much about test-writing; I wrote mine without marking the correct answers, and my teammate wrote his without any distracters. Needless to say, my answer keys were off, and his distracters were comically bad. It was also a very small product: seventy exams, plus a couple speeches, math formulas, and impromptu topics authored at a vitamin factory. But schools gave us the benefit of the doubt, and many have subscribed to our materials ever since, seeing us through all our growing pains with great interest and patience. For this, I am profoundly grateful.
In our second year, our coach joined us. He helped us design our first Sequenced Exams, in mathematics—tests structured to go from easy to hard. He brought us maturity and confidence, and, most importantly, he ensured that a one-year experiment became an ongoing venture.
Grant Farnsworth and DemiDec’s Quantum Leap
I assumed sole leadership of DemiDec during our third and fourth years. Around then, our team became more what it remains today: a network of former Decathletes, curriculum experts and experienced writers who work together to craft the Course of Studies and other materials. To signal this evolution, I traveled with my new friend and associate, Sanjai Rao, to the national competition in Utah. There, we met with teams and handed out a new DemiDec Resource to mark the introduction of our Resource Kits: peanut butter ThinkBars. (Alpacas would come later.)
That summer, we used a new tool—the “Internet”—to compose the first Complete Course of Studies. There were only about twelve of us. One recruit from New Mexico, Grant Farnsworth, literally moved into the office for six weeks, authoring two resource kits and editing most of the others. Meanwhile, John Santerre from Maine took on Jane Eyre, Dawn Perlner of Massachusetts music, Bao Phan Super Quiz, Sanjai Rao science, and Casey Alt poetry. An Orange County Decathlete, Robert Pazornik, now the CEO of Lickeyship, chipped in wherever he could—including typing for me when my hands went numb with carpal tunnel. I owe them all a debt of gratitude for being there at DemiDec’s second beginning—and Grant the greatest thanks of all, for steering the ship at my side when I couldn’t have steered it alone.
A Steady Course of Studies: 1998-2002
From that initial group of a few steadfast contributors the DemiDec team soon grew in size and achieved a new stability. Contributors returned from season to season, and new recruits joined each year. Our research resulted in our new workbooks, and in a Decathlon message board we still host today, at www.acadectalk.com.
In 1998, DemiDec nearly merged with USAD, but at the penultimate moment, we decided to remain separate as a curriculum provider. In 1999, we completed the acquisition of a smaller Texas-based creator of curriculum materials, Quizmart, integrating its test-writers onto our team. And in 2000, we sailed a steady course, welcoming the return of outside research, and continuing to develop and refine our course of studies: exams, workbooks, resources, answer explanation guides, flashcards and other aids. We also released our new board game, AcaMania, which was developed by three members of my original team from Taft.
2001 and 2002 were important years for us. Our newest products included scrimmage exams and our “DemiDisc” CD-ROM, while our growing number of Decathlon subscribers brought home accolades and championships in many states. Our most important change, however, was to introduce online delivery so that schools could download their materials each year as they were released, beginning in the summer.
The Alpacas are Here
One summer day, an Academic Decathlete named Esther Tsai was studying at a teammate’s house when she spotted a rug she liked. “What kind of rug is that?” she asked. “It’s an alpaca rug,” her teammate Chien explained. Esther looked up alpacas and, inevitably, fell in love with them. She soon joined DemiDec as a poetry specialist, and the love was catching. When DemiDec held its first (and last) election that summer to decide on a mascot, the alpaca defeated the emu in a landslide. The penguin came in third. (Analysts believe the emu and the penguin split the bird vote.)
The next year, DemiDec’s artist, Tina Ye, proposed creating covers for all the DemiDec materials—with alpacas front-and-center. Today, it’s hard to imagine DemiDec without them.
New Team Members, New Ideas: 2003-2004
In 2003, a DemiDec task force convened to determine whether anything was missing from the Course of Studies. Its conclusion: that while DemiDec’s Resources were effective for learning the curriculum, something else was needed to help with reviewing exactly those points most likely to be tested. They collaborated to create DemiDec’s first Power Guides, which continue to be authored exclusively by Decathletes and Scholar’s Cup competitors who scored more than 8,000 points.
2004 saw DemiDec move exam development online, to www.testperfect.com. This increased speed and permitted rapid online review. The team also took advantage of wireless Internet connections to create virtual offices at Starbucks coffee shops and Borders bookstores across the country.
Forging a New Blade: 2005-2006
In 2005, DemiDec held a DemiSummit in Chicago that coincided with the national competition. There, about a dozen DemiDec editors and coordinators met with students to discuss ways to improve our materials and processes. The results included a new beta test system and a set of extra-challenging exams, dubbed Scimitar, that have been part of our lineup ever since.
The First World Scholar’s Cup: 2006
For a long time, Decathlon ended at the United States national competition. This seemed increasingly inappropriate in a globalizing world. It also excluded students in other countries from a very meaningful extracurricular opportunity. Therefore, in consultation with college admissions officers, university professors and international schools around Asia, we launched the World Scholar’s Cup in 2006. The World Scholar’s Cup is more than just Acadec gone global: it’s a new competition that merges the best of Decathlon with new features designed to make it even more exciting, interdisciplinary and team-oriented.
Partnering with YBM: 2006
In 2006, DemiDec found a perfect ally in Korea: YBM, the country’s leader in English language education. In collaboration with YBM, we began developing and publishing books for English language students, including TOEFL guides and materials for children. YBM also helped sponsor the World Scholar’s Cup, providing the YBM English Village as the site for the World Finals.
Launching an Academy: 2007
Together with YBM, we opened the first DemiDec Academy in Korea, bringing the student-centered approach of our study guides to classroom instruction for the AP, SAT, TOEFL and other standardized exams. To power our SAT offerings, we affiliated with Accolade, which is also providing DemiDec subscribers in the United States with special access to its online SAT curriculum. The Academy opened in December 2007, and courses will expand to a location in Beijing in early 2008.
Epilogue: Yes, That’s Me With the Alpacas
In 2005, I was volunteering at a non-profit in Ecuador when I came across stuffed alpaca toys at a marketplace. That’s when it occurred to me that the best way to thank subscriber teams would be to bring each its own alpaca. So don’t be surprised if you see me (or one of my DemiDec teammates) wandering an Academic Decathlon or Scholar’s Cup competition with a bag of mischievous alpacas looking for new homes.