Monday, March 06, 2006

March Means One Thing

For some March means spring break, the possibility of spring but for me March means one thing only: Science Fair. Northern Lights Elementary requires children to participate which means every year come March I get to enter the World of the Science Fair.

When they're young I can get away with set-ups like How A Butterfly's Wing Works (this one's a beauty, it doesn't really matter what else you do, just slap the child into a recycled Halloween costume with wings and the cute factor dominates such that the mothers/judges don't even look at the display) or Models of Our Solar System (otherwise known as Painted Styrofoam Balls on Toothpicks). But once your child hits third grade it gets a little dodgier outsmarting the system. They start to require actual science experiments.

One year Grace took an interest in economics and agriculture and did an experiment with microwave popcorn, popping different brands of popcorn and doing a mini-consumer report on the results. I didn’t realize she'd done this until one night I happened to be popping up a bag and Grace informs me that her favorite popcorn is “Blast-o-Butter” but that at $.42/cup it is inferior to the value of PopSecret which gives you a return of $.30/cup while still retaining it Superior Popability, etc.

She lectured me for three or four minutes on the various benefits and drawbacks to each brand on the market, quoting prices per box, bag, and cup. I stood there with my mouth open, listening to my mini-Nader and wondering if I should be happy about the wealth of product information spewing forth without restraint. In the end she advised me to discontinue purchase of all other brands save PopSecret, imploring me with all the energy of her free-market soul to reward the most deserving product with my business.

Yet another year she decided to make a maze for her pet hamster to run through. I don't think the futhering of behavioral psychology was her concern, it just seemed pleasant to be able to use her science fair project as an excuse for letting Cream Puff run wild. I've never been an animal lover and had given into the idea of a hamster in the house in a moment of weakness. I soon realized my error and had waited patiently for the day when he'd live to his normal life expectancy and be gone, then and I wouldn't have to wake up each morning to see if the hamster had escaped from his cage during the night.

She built the maze and got everything ready for the experiment and wouldn't you know it, the week of the science fair Cream Puff died. So instead of finally being a Hamster-free House as I had dreamed, in the name of science I was forced to make an emergency run to Pet Warehouse and buy a brand-new hamster that would enable her to complete her project. I tried to get them to sell me their most aged, infirmed, arthritic, geriatric, sure-to-die-soon rodent but that hamster wouldn't die--a virtual miracle of modern medicine. I eventually reached the limit of my patience and got rid of him after his final night of drunken debauchery where he escaped and chewed a hole in my new carpeting. You could say I donated his body to science.

So Christmas Break 2005 rolls around and I begin my familiar rantings about how the break is a perfect time to get those science fair projects going, protecting me from last minute panics that inevitably arise every March. And perhaps it's a sign of maturity that Grace, using some newfound foresight, did just that. She came up with an idea to experiment with different liquids for growing plants hydroponically (I refrained from pointing out that if one is substituting orange juice it is no longer hydroponics but orangejuiceponics, that would have just derailed the whole thing). She put three plants in three different liquids to see if they’d grow. Now I’ve never won a Nobel prize but I had a suspicion that it wouldn't go well. For one thing, the plants she chose to use weren’t plants that could be grown hydroponically let alone milkaponically. A day or two into it the leaves shriveled, the roots died, the poor little things just withered up into little brown prickly balls. But that wasn't the problem.

She kept the experiment in my bedroom next to the glass patio doors where the light was most favorable and the plant sitting in the milk curdled up into the stinkiest, clumpiest, nastiest, yellow-chunky-cheesiest mess you could imagine. It didn't make any difference if she changed the milk regularly, it still curdled and filled the room with that rotten milk smell. Andrew and I held out as long as possible, all in the name of science, until it got to the point that our bodies started into toxic shock every time we entered our bedroom and we insisted, science project or not, that whole vile setup be removed to the garage where we couldn’t smell it.

Fine, it’s in the garage but that wasn’t the end of my troubles. Evidently having the plants in the garage put the whole thing enough out of sight that she ended up waiting until the last possible moment (this weekend) put the display together. She waited until I had already made my Wal-Mart run for the week and had settled down for a nice quiet Saturday afternoon to mention she had to have certain things—make that HAD to have certain things in order to complete her project successfully. Pause for a teaching moment.

I told her she was going to have to do a Think Outside the Box because I wasn’t going back to Wal-Mart—on a Saturday afternoon? Are you kidding? Not for all the Cocoa Puffs in Anchorage—and that it would teach her to do a better job of planning ahead. Besides, my secret ace in the hole was that I had found out that entering the science fair wasn’t required for sixth graders this year, she was doing it as extra credit for her science grade which gave me some latitude in my parenting techniques.

Well, she thought outside the box, came up with an alternative to what she thought she couldn't live without and finally finished the whole thing Saturday night (woo hoo!) with a minimal amount of panic. I think about next year when I'll have three of them doing projects and I start to twitch. My nerves can’t take it I tell you.


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