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Photo: Courtesy photos, License: N/A

Courtesy photos

Rivera and teacher Beatrice Villarreal in a photo from Rivera’s Somerset High yearbook

Photo: , License: N/A

Rivera’s first-place UIL awards in programming competitions

Rivera became a mariachi and learned the violin. Someone suggested he couldn’t play basketball so he made the team to prove them wrong, and then quit. Mostly, he spent his time learning about computers. That’s what led Somerset High math teacher Beatrice Villarreal to seek him out for the school’s computer team in the University Interscholastic League (UIL).

Somerset hadn’t fielded a team before because it didn’t offer any computer classes. Indeed, the computer the school provided them would later prove wildly unreliable, failing twice in competitions, and forcing Rivera’s team to jury-rig alternatives.

When Villarreal recruited Rivera, he brought his friends along as teammates. He taught them what he knew. One of his teammates beginning his sophomore year, Jay Fisher, would in some ways surpass Rivera. Fisher’s now in the aerospace program at University of Texas studying, quite literally, to become a rocket scientist.

Over time Villarreal struck up a friendship with Rivera. Despite sponsoring the team, she’s not super computer-savvy, and he helped her recover from computer issues on at least a couple occasions. She found they shared an appreciation for ’80s music, a sardonic sense of humor and a certain amount of impatience with senseless authority.

“He had no tolerance for bullshit,” she says. Rivera and his teammates didn’t understand why she didn’t fight back against bureaucratic indignities. “Sometimes I have to bit my lip, smile and wave,” she told them. “They weren’t at that point yet.”

The competitions involve individual test-taking computers and various programming languages as well as competing in teams to solve problems and/or create programs. From the beginning, Rivera’s team approached the meets with a certain strut. They’d play “entrance” music on the laptop when they entered the room. They were young, brash and cocky—and they backed it up. They went to regionals their very first year, earning themselves a school letter. By Rivera’s senior year they placed second at state.

“These skinny little kids started showing up at meets and all of a sudden they’re beating these schools that had three- and four-year programs,” Villarreal says. “There was no discipline, no formal anything, but they would win. These kids were drinking Red Bull and cracking jokes, but winning, and it annoyed the other coaches who had their teams lined up like little Stepford children.”

The Somerset team would arrive at their Saturday meets arrayed in suits. This was a quirk they picked up that second year from Rivera. By high school, Rivera was an adherent of How I Met Your Mother character Barney Stinson’s easily summarized sartorial philosophy: Suit up! At all times.

“You’d never see this kid in t-shirts or shorts or anything. He had to dress to the nines always,” says his mother. “He bought at letterman jacket, but he never wore it. He didn’t want to mess up the suit.”

Unlike many schools across America, at Somerset High this was not akin to pasting a sign on one’s back that says “Swirlie Me.” Perhaps it’s the small enrollment—Rivera’s graduating class numbered 113—but it lacked your typical high-school-coming-of-age-movie power structure. He had an attractive girlfriend and was relatively popular.

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