Failures of Various Kinds

17 Apr

Despite my courageous and noble post last month, I did not actually make it to Story Club to share my story. A last minute emergency prevented me from going. It was a bitter disappointment, especially since I had already written and rehearsed my story. The theme that month was “She Blinded Me With Science!” and so I wrote whatever came into my head about science until it coalesced into a story. Since I did not get to share it with a live audience, I thought I would share it here. It still needs a better ending (I think), but here it is.

Science was always my worst subject.

I never made it past the classroom phase of our Chicago Public School’s Science Fair in all three years of trying. The first year, sixth grade, I accidentally left my posterboard at home. I ran back for it in tears, desperately trying to reach it in time, only to discover when I got to my front door that it was my sister’s day with the latchkey. Now late and posterboard-less, I slowly walked back to school, choking back tears and my pride.

I was supposed to be at the top of everything academically. Not the best, necessarily, but definitely at the top. Unrealistic expectations and pressures suddenly materialize when you skip a grade. You are supposed to get straight A’s, win the classroom if not the school wide Geography and Spelling Bees, any and all writing contests, and you certainly should be representing your homeroom in the next level of the science fair – the gymnasium round – with the kids who studied moldy bread and made working doorbells.

This pressure did not come from any teacher, school administrator, fellow student, or even my parents. It all came from inside myself, and I was my harshest critic. I had to be more than smart – I had to justify skipping a grade. I had to silence the doubts of my peers and the even louder internal voice that constantly questioned the decision I had not made, saying “Are you sure you’re that smart?”

That first year of the Science Fair, I thought the answer was yes. With my teacher’s approval, I selected an experiment on genetics out of the textbook. I actually enjoyed the research for my paper, discussing Mendel with his peas and the elegant logic of Punnett squares. My actual experiment consisted of comparing my traits with my parents. I’m not sure how that proved anything, except that none of us could curl our tongues. As I started constructing my poster, doubt started to creep in. What if my experiment wasn’t good enough? What if I wasn’t as smart as everyone thought I was?

And so it was with a very heavy heart that I returned to school without my posterboard, knowing that I was immediately eliminated from competition. I dried my eyes and gave the best presentation I could without my painstakingly crafted tri-fold posterboard. I saw the pity in the judges’ eyes as they took in the pale face with every freckle standing out, the red and swollen eyes, and the glaringly empty desk. They sympathetically gave the best marks they could, but with no posterboard, I had no shot at a spot in the gym.

As miserable as I was – all that research for nothing – I quickly managed to find the bright side. I had missed the gym, but not through a lack of hard work or a lack of smarts. It’s not that my project wasn’t good enough – rather, it was cruel fate that put the latchkey in my sister’s backpack, separating me from my beautiful poster and keeping me from truly competing. The fact that I forgot the poster in the first place was quickly ignored. Instead, I absolved myself of all guilt and sorrowfully told my parents and myself that I would have made it further if only it had been my day to carry the key.

I was good at feigning disappointment, and my parents were impressed with how stoically I accepted defeat, and presumably learned the lesson about responsibility. But inside, I was rejoicing. I had found a loophole. If I had made it out of the classroom round and into the gym, I might have suffered humiliation and defeat, my project might not have been good enough. But by leaving behind a vital part of the project – through no fault of my own – I had placed the matter out of my hands. If I didn’t make it to the next round, it wasn’t because I wasn’t smart. It was just fate. The day after the science fair, I already knew my plan for the next year.

In seventh grade, I dutifully selected a worthy topic- how earthworms respond to stimuli. I researched the anatomy and behavior of earthworms. I kept my live bait in the fridge in a Chinese take-out container. My worms submitted themselves to my poking and prodding them in an old Baker’s Square pie tin. Again, the experiment didn’t prove anything – unless you count the discovery that, when sufficiently provoked, an earthworm can actually jump out of a pie tin.

As I tortured my worms, I also planned my sabotage. My first plan was to kill the earthworms by accidentally placing them in the freezer half of our fridge. But my casual question to my teacher as to what would kill earthworms aroused her suspicion, and she told me live earthworms were not necessary for the remainder of the project. I knew it would raise even more suspicion to forget my poster again and so I searched for another plan.

Once again, I constructed the requisite tri-fold posterboard, composed a research paper, drew up a speech – and left the materials at home. The pie tin, the instruments of worm torture – mysteriously, none of them made it to school with me the day of the Fair. Again, they were a vital part of the scoring system and I did not advance.

I cheerfully explained to my teacher and classmates and parents that no, I was not disappointed. It wasn’t my fault you see – alas! I had forgotten my materials at home! The melodramatic forehead clasping definitely raised more eyebrows and suspicions, and I knew that the ruse was up.

And so, in 8th grade, I did not plan any sabotage. I rejected the doorbell making project suggested by my teacher as far too difficult and decided to formulate my own experiment. It was based on one I had read in a book – a Babysitter’s Club Book, to be precise. The fact that an 8 year old character was performing the experiment should have been a sign, but I liked the project because I thought it was original and I knew it would be easy to carry out. And so I bought plants and studied how music affected their growth rates. One got classical music, one got the oldies station, and one got silence. None grew appreciably more than the others, though I think the classical plant had an eighth of an inch on the other two.

I brought everything to the classroom fair – posterboard, plants, research paper. I was ready to finally join my peers in the gym. And yet, I didn’t make it past the classroom round. My project was deemed “too easy for an 8th grader.” I had cheated myself without even knowing it. Apparently, there’s more to Science Fair success than bringing your materials and your posterboard. Apparently, you’re supposed to challenge yourself, to actually learn something, and you probably should not take your experiment from a children’s book, and a poorly written one at that.

It was a bitter pill to swallow. I couldn’t blame my failure on conscious sabotage. And I couldn’t even comfort myself with “Oh well, I tried my hardest.” I knew damn well where that experiment came from. And yet, I still found my loophole. I told myself, “Well, everyone knows – science is my worst subject.”

The next Story Club is this Tuesday. I’m going to try again, and bring all my materials this time.

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