EWMS students make return to Amazing Shake competition

By: 
Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

Zach Fickas, Abigail Jones (in the back corner), Hayden Pendleton and Emrie Sabens speak with judges during the Amazing Shake competition in Atlanta, Georgia, at the end of February.

Hayden Pendleton delivers a weather report of a tornado heading toward Atlanta as part of the Amazing Shake competition at the end of February.

Abigail Jones was called up onstage to give a brief motivational speech by Ron Clark during the Amazing Shake competition.

East Washington Amazing Shake competitors Hayden Pendleton, Zach Fickas, Abigail Jones and Emrie Sabens shared some of their toughest life experiences and how they overcame them to the entire school, in groups, after they returned from the Amazing Shake contest at the end of February.

Just because this isn’t East Washington’s first rodeo with the Amazing Shake, doesn’t mean the four students who made their way to Atlanta at the end of February weren’t a bit nervous.

“I feel like our school was more prepared for the process of the second [local] round,” said Abigail Jones, an eighth grader. “We didn’t know what the Amazing Shake was going to be like last year when we went down to Georgia, so I figured out for myself this year it was going to be different … We watched a video of it and they wen’t down there and Ms. King said they learned so much and so we knew it would be bigger and better. I had a feel there would be more to it and I felt like it was harder this year.”

Jones was in the top 40 who made it to the second round last year and said she was more familiar with what she was going to be doing, but it still wasn’t easy. The shoe-tying station, where she had to teach someone to tie their shoes, stood out to her. She didn’t make it to the top 12 last year and was excited this year to have progressed further, but didn’t expect to make it to the top four heading to the national competition.

“Just knowing I improved helped build my confidence,” she said. “I just felt like, whatever happens, happens. I just wanted to grow from the experience. I definitely did, but when she announced the top 10, I was like ‘I didn’t get eliminated!’ Then I moved on and was like, ‘I didn’t get eliminated. Oh no!’ It’s getting lower and lower and told myself I had to stay calm. You just have to keep your cool. It’s kind of like a job interview. It’s building your confidence, but you know that now, you have to work harder.”

Hayden Pendleton was the youngest of the four — a sixth grader. He explained the process of going from the beginning of the local competition to being chosen for the national level.

The first round included every student at EWMS. They went through 15 stations after having the chance to prepare for only five. The top 40 students from that were taken to round two at Cornerstone Hall, where they cycled through 10 stations and 10 more students were eliminated. The top 30 competed in a “Work the Room” challenge where they had to speak to as many volunteer judges as possible and have good, but not rushed, conversations. Ten more were eliminated and the top 20 students participated in a lunch round, where they had lunch with the judges and were reduced again by 10. The last 10 did a “TV” interview with Principal Amber King and gave a motivational speech. After that, the top four students — Jones, Emrie Sabens (eighth grade), Pendleton and Zach Fickas (eighth grade) — were named the school champions.

“I wasn’t so sure how I’d do in our first round,” said Pendleton. “Then, after I got my scores, I thought, ‘I might make it.’ I had seven 20’s and the rest were 16 and up, so I thought that’s pretty good. I thought, maybe I’d make the top 25, maybe … Then, at Cornerstone, I was like, ‘Maybe,’ because there were the same number of eighth graders as sixth graders. I thought the eighth graders would probably get it because they were more experienced. When I got to Work the Room, I was like, ‘Wow!’ and my scores were really good and I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll make it to the lunch round and after the lunch round, I didn’t think I’d make it to the next round because I didn’t think I did well in the lunch, but I must have, because I made it to the top 10.”

As the rounds progressed and he kept making it to the next level, Pendleton said his hope grew. In the end, two boys and two girls would be chosen and there were only three boys in the top 10.

“I thought it would be Zach and Anakin [McCormick, 7th grade] because they’re older,” said Pendleton.

Sabens said she didn’t make it past the first round last year.

“My aunt was my judge and she didn’t want to pick favorites,” she said. “This year, I was really nervous, but I do well when I’m nervous. I had to focus on not falling in heels.”

She said she performed well during the Gauntlet rounds.

“You just kind of wing it,” she said. “If they know you’re nervous, you won’t do as well.”

She said hearing her name called as one of the top four was “unreal.”

“I didn’t even realize my name was called until Abbie tackled me,” she said. “I was just so crazy and unreal.”

Despite making it into the top 40 students during the local competition last year, Fickas said he didn’t think he did well in last year’s rounds. He said his confidence level was pretty high this year, though.

“I really wanted to win,” he said. “I kept my cool. I did what I needed to do and got out of there.”

Still, he didn’t expect to make it into the top 10, but then found himself in the top four and hearing his name called felt “amazing.”

“I feel like our teachers pushed us really hard,” said Jones.

Sabens said the culture change at the school has improved students’ social skills and helped prepare them for the competition as well.

“The way our classrooms have changed have helped as well,” she said. “It starts with a base and Ms. King did an amazing job of helping to build that base so we could do this.”

Jones said she felt support, not just from teachers, but also from her fellow students.

“Teachers and even other students were like, ‘You made it! You did such a good job!” she said. “Even if they didn’t get in and were so close, they were still so happy for you. I remember walking down the hallway and everyone was like ‘Good job! Good job!’ and I was getting hugs and everyone was so sweet!”

“It’s amazing to see students proud of other students for things they could have possibly been in, but they’re so happy for you,” said Sabens.

They arrived in Atlanta and were swept into the intensity of the competition. Two hundred sixty-six students competed from all over the United States, its territories and even other countries, including Nigeria and Honduras. The students said the kids from Honduras came from boarding schools where they were being trained to be the heads of state and other high-level individuals, so they came prepared.

“We knew it was going to be a tough competition,” said Jones. “It was like, ‘Whoa!’ … They were so, so, so sweet, though.”

The school itself, painted and decorated to look like the inside of a castle, made the early morning wake-up calls worth it, said Pendleton.

“It was like Harry Potter, basically,” he said. “It was fun!”

“I had no words,” said Sabens. “You walk in and you’re smiling and you smile the whole time. It was cool to see something become such a cool school. The building used to be a warehouse. It’s just full of positivity. It was a weekend and everyone was still so happy to be there.”

Pendleton said he was anticipating the national-level rounds would be more challenging.

“I knew it would be hard, but fun, but judging was harder,” he said. “The Work the Room was harder. They had less judges than kids, so there were like six kids for each judge. I didn’t do too well in that round … I think we all knew the competition would be tough. Everyone there was really good.”

“I did OK [with the Work the Room challenge],” said Sabens. “I’m really good at talking … You just have to go at it like you have nothing to lose.”

All four EWMS students placed in the top 100 competitors — Jones said she came in at 95th place, Sabens said she came in at 50th place, Pendleton in 55th and Fickas came closest to the top by ranking in the top 40, the highest of any of the Washington County competitors.

“Me and Emrie were in the top 80, so we got to compete for one of the two wild cards, but neither of us made it,” said Pendleton.

“I was so proud of you guys, you have no idea,” said Jones.

Because of Fickas’s high ranking, 32nd place, he had the chance to meet and speak with Meg Murry, who played Storm Reid in “A Wrinkle in Time,” and Caleb McLaughlin, who plays “Lucas” in the Netflix show, “Stranger Things.” Sabens said she particularly excited about being in such close proximity to McLaughlin.

“I was 10 spots away from being in the top 40,” she said. “He got to meet [Murry and McLaughlin]. I love ‘Stranger Things.’ As soon as he walked out, I started crying. Zach doesn’t even watch ‘Stranger Things.’ I was happy for him, though.”

“I didn’t believe it,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to be in the top 40 at all. They were going down the list, name by name, and I thought, ‘Oh, if they don’t say something here about me, I’m not going up there,’ and then, here comes me, number 32 out of 266 kids. It was mindblowing.”

“His face lit up,” said Jones.

Fickas called the experience of competing at the Ron Clark Academy “one in a million.”

“It’s something I’m happy I did,” he said. “It’s not something I’ll ever get to do again because it’s only fifth through eighth grade … It’s just an amazing experience and something I wish I could do again because I met so many new friends and helped boost my confidence and speaking in big groups, which I’m still not good at. I still get stagefright.”

Jones was one of 10 students Ron Clark called to speak on stage.

“You couldn’t fail at it unless you passed out,” said Jones. “I went up there and was like, ‘Basically, guys, we can’t all win first place, but we all can win if we take something away from this.’ Then he gave me a hug and I was like, ‘OK, I gotta go now.’”

Sabens said each of the EWMS competitors had their own strengths that helped get them through the challenges.

“We’re all so different,” she said. “I love being put on the spot and Zach is better in small groups and Hayden is good with all of them — he’s so cute it works — and Abbie is just so professional and serious.”

Fickas said the experience has made him more outgoing as he enters high school next year.

“Possibly,” he said. “I tend to stick to myself more than really talking to people. I talk to people, but I’m really more the type to be by myself more.”

“We didn’t see that at the Amazing Shake,” said Jones. “He was talking to everybody, may I just say.”

“It’s one chance in your life,” Fickas replied. “There’s 266 other kids here. Go make some friends.”

Last year’s Amazing Shake winner, Keanan Andrews, mentioned Fickas specifically in a TV interview, saying he’d met a kid named Zach from Indiana who was also a wrestler at his school.

“I was like ‘Wow, that’s me,’” said Fickas. “I was not expecting anybody to do that. The whole entire experience was mindblowing.”

Sabens said she’s grown so much in middle school, due in part to preparing for the Amazing Shake last year and this year.

“In sixth grade, I didn’t have very good social skills,” she said. “I would have to do the announcements and the pledge [at school] and one time, I had a panic attack. I almost passed out and they had to give me a paper bag, but now, I can go in front of the whole entire school and just talk about my life.”

“It’s one of those things were you can say, ‘I have grown. I have shown improvement,’” said Jones. “I couldn’t have done this three years ago. There’s no way.”

The support for Amazing Shake winners didn’t end with the national competition and it was returned when they got back. After the trip, some of the four decided they wanted to share tough experiences they’d been through with the school and talk about how they are or have overcome them. Jones shared her experience with dyslexia and the frustration, depression and bullying she had to fight in order to succeed in school.

“My third grade year, I didn’t want to touch a book,” she said. "It was a really, really low point in my life. I felt like I wasn’t worthy of anything and I also got bullied … I’ve overcome so many things. The Amazing Shake isn’t the hardest thing I’ve done. It’s hard and it’s draining, but … it didn’t hold me back.”

Sabens shared about some tough times in her family with cancer and then substance abuse.

“Someone in my life was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and had to have a lot of surgeries and they gave her opioids for pain and she developed an addiction,” she said. “It was someone who was supposed to be there for me. I have a family history of addiction. Several family members have been addicted and some have OD-ed. It’s something I’ve had to overcome and it’s made me such a strong person. I fight for what I want to become.”

Fickus told the school about losing his mother to cancer when he was 3 and then later, his best friends due to moving.

“We had to move in with my grandparents because my dad was working all the time,” he said. “I met Mason when I was in preschool. I had three years with Mason and I had to move schools and I got really upset when I realized Mason wasn’t there.”

Then he met Clayton, who became his best friend, until, Fickas was held back in first grade, so he lost another friend right away. Fortunately, he’s able to talk to Clayton every day, got back in tough with Mason and learned an important life lesson.

“I learned to accept what happened,” he said. “I learned just because it happens, doesn’t make it your fault. Don’t blame yourself. Acceptance is key.”

“Mr. [Clint] Blankenbaker is at Salem now, but he was there and saw us and he told us, given the things we’ve been through and the circumstances we’ve had, none of us should be there, but we were,” said Sabens.

The talks really opened up lines of dialogue between students.

“Other kids started coming to us because it’s easier to talk to your peers than it is to talk with adults,” said Sabens. “It was really hard because we’ve grown up with a lot of these people and a lot of them didn’t know what each other was going through.”

Sabens said there were a lot of tears shed when they did their talks. She said everyone began sharing their stories, hugging each other and crying.

“I felt so much love,” she said. “Since we’ve talked, so many people have come to talk to me and set up times to talk to me. I feel like I can help them.”

“It was like, we’re not perfect; they know no one is 100% perfect,” said Jones. “People think our lives have been so easy and then they realize your life has been hard and you’ve had to overcome things. It’s hard to talk about it. Personally, it was so great because after I told my story, people came up to me and they were like, ‘You did such a great job and I didn’t know that about you.’”

Sabens said the students who returned from Ron Clark brought back, not just school pride, but ideas of things they want to bring their school in the future.

“We’ve had a lot of ideas going, ever since we came back,” she said.

“And we’re all just full-force,” said Jones. “I feel like everybody is. Our school has so much, but I’m on the leadership committee and this school is amazing.”

“It’s amazing when you can walk into a school and want to be there,” said Sabens. “Not a lot of kids like going to school. It’s amazing when the kids make you happy and the teachers make you happy and the lessons are fun.”

“And you can talk to anyone,” said Jones. “It’s not like you have to just talk to your friends.

“I think we’ve all grown from the experience,” continued Jones. “I’m just so proud of everyone and how we pushed each other.”

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