Emanuel Garcia, 11, attends a K-8 school in Woody that has a student body of eight. His campus, Blake Elementary, is the only school in one of the smallest districts in California, the Blake School District.
So when he made it to the California finals of the National History Day fair April 25-27 in Riverside, few people expected him to win.
They were wrong.
Emanuel -- though ineligible as an elementary student to go on to the national competition June 15 -- beat out 24 other entrants and took home one of two first-place medals April 27 at the state's NHD-California held at Riverside's Convention Center.
He had picked his project in the two-dimensional poster category from a slate of 14 options he and his coach thought up, knowing that to stand out the topic would have to not only interest Emanuel but the judges. After narrowing the list to three, he asked his seven schoolmates to vote on their favorite topic.
They chose the 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright case, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that determined state courts are responsible for providing counsel in criminal cases when defendants cannot afford representation.
Emanuel calls the case "a true American story." Even so, and despite his dogged preparation for the history fair, in the moments before the competition results were revealed he was nervous.
"We were in an auditorium. The judges were sitting right in front of the stage," Emanuel said.
"And they announced my name ... and I was really excited," Emanuel said. "I had won, and this was a big accomplishment in my life."
A year earlier, Emanuel had watched his older brother, Bryan, present (with less success) a project about the history of penicillin at the same competition.
"It just sounded fun working with arts and crafts and coming up with ideas to make up a project about a story," Emanuel said.
He asked attorney and neighbor Jeanne Rubin to coach him as she had coached his brother.
Emanuel met with Rubin weekly from September to April 20; and in March, he upped preparation to five days a week for about two hours a day.
"He really put in an effort that most adults couldn't match quite frankly," Rubin said.
She owns a 900-square-foot property that Emanuel's family rented, as well as the 40 acres of land it sits on between Woody and Glennville.
Emanuel's mother is a housekeeper. His father, a rancher's assistant, has worked since he was 12 years old under Emanuel's grandfather, a ranch manger who trained horses in Mexico. The child's father and mother immigrated to the United States, but neither of them had the opportunity to continue their education past high school.
Rubin said Emanuel's parents cannot lavish him with gifts, but are the hardest working people she knows. They instilled that quality in Emanuel.
"I think that's what gave him the tools to stick with this project for so long," Rubin said.
"He just had this belief that if he worked hard enough, he could do it," she said.
He spent hours deciphering the Supreme Court's unanimous decision written by Justice Hugo Black in the Gideon v. Wainwright case, as well as cases preceding it -- 1942 Betts v. Brady and 1932 Powell v. Alabama.
Emanuel, a fifth-grader at the time, filled about 100 index cards of everything he read plus notes to remind himself of important facts.
He interviewed Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green; Luis Rodriguez, the first Latino president of the State Bar of California; and Bruce Jacob, the Florida attorney who argued that state's case against Clarence Gideon.
"There were so many people who helped," Rubin said.
A Blueprint Service Company worker helped Emanuel pick from among some 50 stock flag photos for a background image on the poster he submitted, Rubin said.
About 30 friends, family and community members quizzed Emanuel in preparation for the question-and-answer portion of the competition.
And Ken Green, a Kern County deputy district attorney, connected Emanuel with a man who represented himself in court and was later convicted of murder.
Green, who frequently comes across children on the other side of the justice system, said he was happy to help such "an amazing kid."
"He's what we want our children to be like," Green said.