Two words wither parents’ hearts like none other. No, I don’t mean prom night. That event’s agony is short-lived. The term of which I speak heaps weeks of unbearable dread onto our shoulders. That’s right, science fair.
Winter is thawing, daffodil stems part soft earth, and ankles push past hems of trousers we bought our kids only at the start of the year, all signaling the season when schools across the globe punish parents for their audacity to have kids. A collective sigh is heard as children step off the school bus, open the front door, and announce, “I need help with science fair.”
That was the scene at our house today. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I huffed. Had a year slipped past already? It seemed only recently we’d finished last year’s experiments. Back then, my son had conceived the topic of discovering which food mice preferred, to determine the pests’ most irresistible bait. After procuring the necessary white rodents from the pet store and naming each, he set about fattening them up. Cardboard mouse condos were constructed and furnished with a buffet of chopped hot dogs, cheese, and peanut butter.
Did you know mice can chew through cardboard? Another trip to the pet store, a patched and reinforced condo, and… Did you know mice can chew through quarter-inch plywood? After a third excursion and adding the shop’s checkout lady to our Christmas list, we swung by Home Depot for a roll of metal flashing. Soon a mouse-sized mockup of Alcatraz Island floated in the center of our garage floor. All to discover what we had already known: mice love peanut butter.
It wasn’t my son’s fault. I never should have tried to help. To this day I cringe that I still can’t shake my own insecurity with the middle-school science-fair haze. That is what it’s about – a rite of passage. We all hated it, so like cooked spinach, we force it upon our kids.
As I ponder the fear of yet another research cycle at hand, my thoughts are drawn back to a particular example of my own childhood failings in this field. I was a gawky eleven year old with clown feet and had made the same mistake my son did: I asked Dad for ideas.
“Maybe you could make ethanol,” he’d said. “Race cars use it. Ferment some corn and boil it off.”
I beamed at the possibility. The original eco-friendly dad had just come up with a home-run. At the library, I yanked out the “E” encyclopedia and voraciously studied the process. It could work! We lived on a farm with a barn full of possibilities. I soon assembled jars, a rusty coffee can, and copper tubing into the correct configuration according to an official USDA government diagram.
Our school’s competition was inside a red-bricked gymnasium, rows of tables lining the basketball court. After setting up my duct-taped cardboard display with Whirlpool creatively masked by research notes – there were no premade tri-folds back then – I glanced across the aisle. Our short white-haired science teach stood with a long florescent bulb in her hand. She pointed it at a tower of shiny spun wire stretching as tall as the basketball hoop. She inched toward it. Suddenly, dazzling lightning arced from the pillar’s apex to the tube, lighting it brightly, and filling the space with the crackle and scent of ozone.
The kid had built a Tesla coil. Well, considering the fact his father was a NASA engineer, he might have benefitted from some coaching. There went my shot at first place.
I hung my head and tried to arrange my mini ethanol production line. A dirty-yellow mash bubbled inside the fermentation facility, a quart-sized glass tomato sauce container. An aluminum motor oil funnel crowned the distillation plant, a steel cylinder with Folgers flaking off the side. Silver-tape held a copper tube at its peak which ran to the condenser, an unassuming Mason jar.
One final adjustment and all components lined up like soldiers. Now I was gunning for second place. Certainly I’d come in ahead of the kid who measured friction by sliding hockey pucks down ramps lined with felt, wax paper, and wood. I was admiring the symmetry of my display when the principal strode down the line. He wore a gray suit, black shoes, and thick-rimmed glasses, like a Methodist minister. “What you got here?” as he stepped beside me.
I explained the process, emphasizing how I’d been responsible by not lighting the Bunsen burner, and then asked if he was certain we were all safe from the lightning bolt exhibit. I managed a serious look. “Don’t you think they should take that outside before someone gets electrocuted?”
He laughed through his teeth, like the hiss of a snake. “Don’t worry about that one.” He pointed to my Folgers can. “I see how this would work, and I appreciate your effort, but I don’t think ATF would approve.”
I don’t know how my expression changed, but he immediately started again, louder, as if backpedaling.
“ATF. You know, Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. You understand?”
I was a kid. Who did he think I was? Of course I didn’t understand.
“Moonshine. What you’ve made, in effect, is a still.”
The whole gym fell silent, as if someone was shooting a foul shot. The stare of my classmates raised the hair on my neck. I might have been young, but I knew what a still was. Glancing at my display, I realized my mistake. What an idiot! And my dad, why hadn’t he warned me about this? The man had a sick sense of humor and was probably at work laughing at the scene he’d gotten me into. No wonder the judges earlier had skipped past so quickly. I’d thought it was because they’d deemed my presentation so clearly superior that further consideration was unnecessary. But now…
I stuttered like Jethro on Beverly Hillbillies. “I. Errrr… What I mean is…”
He placed a hand upon my shoulder and waved the other dismissively. “Don’t worry about it. No one’s going to care.” He stepped away, toward the hockey puck ramps. Speaking over his shoulder, “But, next time, try to think of something more creative. Something with real-world application. Gas is cheap. No one is gonna use ethanol.”
Now, my son dropped his green canvas backpack on a scratched kitchen table, sounding like a basketball clanging off the rim. “You hear me?” he asked. “The teacher passed out the science fair announcement.” He reached a single sheet to me. “Can you help me think of something?” What an optimist.
I stare at the white page, only half-full of double-spaced type. How can such an insignificant paper be the cause of so much of humanity’s loathing? Without reading, I know its contents. Something about hell on earth, loads of nagging, strained parental relationships, and weeks of procrastination followed by a caffeine-induced all-nighter before the big day. The time-honored outcomes will no doubt continue to be disappointment, shattered expectations, and confusion of what this is all supposed to teach us. Basically, another day in the life of raising children.
To all my fellow science fair parents, keep your chin up. Enjoy your kids. And, if they grab an idea that lights them up, encourage them. Who cares if it wins a ribbon? It might just be the next thing as big as ethanol. And if not, you might at least learn how to make something truly useful, like moonshine. A healthy dose of which will help you through the next few weeks. Cheers!