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By Erin Post
A handful of students from Crossett Brook Middle School have spent months perfecting a cast of characters from a town called Dimsville.
These unwitting townsfolk get taken under the spell of a particularly charismatic traveling salesman who has just one goal in mind: selling them plungers out of an ice cream truck.
To most people, that proposition might seem a little suspect, but as it turns out, Dimsville's name is an apt description of the citizens who live there, says Crossett Brook fifth-grader Lynn Mireault.
"Who else would buy a plunger from an ice cream truck?" points out her teammate, Kira Wollensak, smiling as she describes some of the ploys the salesman concocts to sell his wares.
The skit is an "answer" to an Odyssey of the Mind problem that revolves around a self-centered character who has to convince others that what he wants is actually in their best interest. This person has to try three different propositions before his audience sees through the selfish act. A surprise ending must bring the play to an end.
That's where instruction ends and imagination begins: To "solve" the problem, the Crossett Brook team has written a script, created characters from scratch, made costumes and a set, and devoted many afternoons and weekends to practicing the entire skit, which also includes a little singing.
Next month, the students take their show on the road to the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals in East Lansing, Michigan.
Three other teams from Crossett Brook Middle School plan to make the trek as well, after placing first or second in their divisions at the state competition in March.
Stacey Blue, a Crossett Brook teacher and the OM coordinator, said the school has sent teams to World Finals in the past-several current team members are veteran competitors-but this year marks a first for the sheer quantity of students headed to the world finals.
All together, 22 students are flying out to Michigan.
"Each year it keeps getting bigger and bigger," Blue said, noting when Crossett Brook first started an Odyssey of the Mind program three years ago, they had just two teams compete, compared to five this year.
Parent volunteers continue to be a critical component of the program's success, she said.
Each team requires a coach, as well as adults willing to help the kids get the materials they need for their projects.
Odyssey of the Mind, an international education program run through a network of nonprofit organizations, sets a budget for each problem and parameters for teams to work within.
The rest is up to students, who learn how to cooperate to come up with a solution. Adults are not supposed to direct the teams, Blue said. They can ask probing questions, but that's where the help ends.
The kids solve the problems by listening and compromising, and by letting their imaginations run wild.
"It's a lot of fun to watch their creativity," Blue said.
One Crossett Brook team tackled a problem called "Tag 'em," which requires the students to build a vehicle that gets "tagged" within a certain zone.
At first, the team wanted to make a floating vehicle, Blue said, but they quickly realized that creating a body of water from scratch probably wouldn't be practical. In the end, they stuck with their boat, but attached it to the wheels from a toy truck, made fabric sails, and propelled it with an electric fan.
In Michigan, they will be competing against students from around the world. For all of the problems, judges rate the teams based on a matrix of criteria, which includes creativity, style, as well as their performance on "spontaneous problems" that require them to come up with creative solutions on the spot.
It turns out the competition is only one part of the allure of Odyssey of the Mind: Wollensak, Mireault, their teammate, Nina Cavender, and another World Finals competitor, Bridget Dow, said they plan to be trading state pins with other students at every chance they get.
It's an Odyssey of the Mind tradition, they said, with each state bringing a unique pin to the competition. Students gather in the hallways, congregate at lunchtime, sometimes even start trading right in the airport, all to score the highly valued pins. This year, they're hoping Vermont's "hologram" design is a hit, so they can come home with a big collection.
They also hope to pick up a few more pen pals, as they did last year.
Area residents will have the chance to see Crossett Brook's Odyssey of the Mind teams in action this Saturday for "An Evening of Odyssey" at the middle school from 6 to 8 p.m. The teams plan to perform as well as offer a chance for audience members to try spontaneous problems.
The $5 admission includes an Italian dinner. Proceeds benefit the teams' trip to Michigan.
The teams are also hosting a bottle drive May 5 at Depot Beverage. Residents are encouraged to drop off bottles and cans between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.