My parents were not child psychology adherents. As a result, I got more than just science fair notification letters sent home with me by the very concerned duo of my vice principal and gifted teacher, who feared that, lacking a subscription to Parents' Magazine, my barbarian parents slit the throats of kittens in our backyard according to the tribal customs of our foreign land. But, as is common with child psychology, they failed to correctly diagnose the problem. It was not so much that my parents did not want to be nurturing and encouraging as that they had no inclination to fork over the money that the school felt was required for the basic maintenance of
Wary as my parents were of being forced to spend money on the science fair, I was at least equally unexcited about actually participating in it. Nominally voluntary, a science fair project was actually required for the gifted program, and since most of my junior high existence consisted of threats of being kicked out of the gifted program, I was being especially closely monitored in the fulfillment of its basic requirements. At every trespass, I was reminded that "truly gifted children would not behave this way," and "truly gifted children," it seemed, would be excited about about spending three months measuring bean sprout growth. Unfortunately, while I didn't mind learning science, my inclination to do it was pretty much nonexistent. Why would I want to measure bean sprouts at all if they were inevitably going to die before I could eat them, no matter what kind of fertilizer I was testing? My lack of true giftedness combined with my parents' lack of financial indulgence did not bode well for the expected earth-shattering scientific breakthrough due in January.
In seventh grade, the project was bread mold and preservatives. Actually, it was bagel mold. My parents refused to purchase seven loaves of white bread--none of which we would ever eat--so that I could test seven different brands. They weren't thrilled about purchasing seven bags of bagels either, but at least bagels were occasionally consumed in my family and the uneaten remainder could be preserved infinitely, much like the cans of creamed corn they'd purchased on our arrival to this country nearly 20 years ago and which are still residing comfortably unopened in our basement under the strict family edict "Thou shalt never throw away anything even remotely edible lest thou be caught in the midst of the Revolution without any creamed corn to sustain thyself." So bagels it was. This whole rationale was more difficult to explain to my gifted teacher, who wondered whether my use of bagels would fundamentally throw off the bread mold paradigm.
The research paper aspect went swimmingly, but it was the execution and presentation of the experiment that tripped me up. First, some of the bagels failed to mold. (Take note, preservatives really do work.) Others were contaminated by mold from their neighbors. What is a scientist to do when the experiment fails? One of my friends re-did her (very complex) experiment on suspension bridges four times and recalculated the numbers until she got it right. She went on to state competition and is now a math major. That was certainly one route. But Rita the scientist preferred a more creative route--namely, making up results.
Then there was the problem of not knowing enough science. In order to explain how preservatives work, it turned out that I needed to know some kind of actual chemistry. Now, my suspension bridge friend ran into a similar dilemma with her project, and she responded by learning physics. I, on the other hand, responded by ignoring the problem entirely.
And finally, there was the problem of presentation. At least half the work in the science fair consist of putting together the posterboard with pretty graphs, cut-out letters, and other costly paraphanelia. Parents up on their child psychology understand the necessity of both purchasing the required accoutrements and then making the poster for their incompetent children. My parents were not so cooperative.
"Can't you just cut out some cardboard from a box and fold it into thirds?" they asked when I said I would be needing a foldable board that cost (and I recall this precisely) seven dollars.
"Can't you just write the letters with markers?" they asked when I said I would be needing stencil letters.
"Can't you just draw the graphs by hand and color a background behind them?" they asked when I said I would need to print color graphs with construction paper backings.
So, on the day of the science fair, I arrived hauling my triple-folded cardboard box with handwritten lettering that got gradually smaller as I ran out of space and then appeared to fall off an imaginary cliff as it reached the edge of the board. Several smudges crookedly attached with the glue oozing out underneath represented my results graphically. Despite the rather unrefined appearance of my board, the presentation to the judge went well enough until he asked why one preservative worked better than the others. This is where the actual science knowledge would have been useful. Instead, I responded that the mold was most scared of that one and ran away from it fastest.
Needless to say, I did not advance to even district-level competition. This was duly noted by the vice principal and the gifted teacher.
The following year, I managed to pull myself together somewhat enough to recognize that the real future of the science fair lay in psychology projects, which merely required one to pass out surveys. Surveys, unlike bagels, were really, really cheap. So I did a project on the effect of age on dream content. I passed out surveys to my classmates, my teachers, and an exceedingly uncooperative class of snot-nosed third-graders who did not seem to fully grasp the concept of circling "all that apply." It was actually somewhat interesting however, and the research paper was again quite comprehensive. The display board posed a problem once more, but my parents finally relented on the construction paper question, and my smudges were marked off by distinguished color borders this time. All went well with the presentation, and I was even given a chance to advance to the district competition, though with one stipulation.
"I like your experimental groups, but I think you need to also include a group of elderly people to get a full age range," the judge said.
"But I don't know any old people," I responded.
"Well, it shouldn't be a problem to go to a nursing home and distribute the surveys," he responded.
"Go to a nursing home? Full of old people?"
"Um, I don't think I want to go to district."
And thus I was forced to retire from an otherwise promising career in science. However, my friend Cathy, whose project tested different fertilizers on the growth of bean sprouts, went on to state that year and won a first place prize.