Friday, July 15, 2005


I wish to tell you a story about humility. It won't take long.

The Big One was in the fourth grade this last year. By a trick of the calendar, he wass the youngest there. If he was born three days later, he would have been in the third grade this last year. He's bright, and a tall drink of water, you know, so the 11 months between him and many of his schoolmates doesn't show that much.

He attends what we used to call a parochial school. They're a little more interested in academic excellence than in the local public school, and a lot more interested in the character of their charges, so we pony up the money and his mother schleps him the ten miles or so to school every morning, and back in the afternoon. The building he sits in all day isn't much to look at, and if it was the public school, it would have been replaced by now with something more elaborate. The world is upside down from when I was a child; the private school just scrapes by, and the public school is palatial and new.

This might sound a little simplistic, but I asked my wife only one question about the school after she first found it and toured it with an eye to enrolling our boy: Are the desks in rows, or are they arranged in circles? Rows, she said. Case closed.

He likes it there, and he thrives.

Now, The Large One got excited about his science fair. It's a big one, he intoned. In the gymnasium. The whole school displays at once. Judges of knowledge and stature from the surrounding environs, including engineering students from the local college. I must win.

Winning's hard, I warned him. Everyone wants to win. It's in the trying, that we learn about winning, I told him, and pulled up short before lapsing into "giving 110%" and "stepping up," and so forth.

He'd have none of it. He had to get the ribbon, or perish trying.

He really did exert himself. I'd never seen him pay attention to anything except Playstation like this project. He went to the library, and picked his topic and books. He had his mother cart him over to Staples, to get poster board and such, and then to the supermarket, where he bought cooking oil, and molasses, and drew a few stares at the checkout line. He returned home, and went over his experiment. What in the blue sky are you doing I asked?

Why, exhibiting and measuring the miscibility in water of various common substances, father, he said in the tone of profound condescension I didn't expect 'til he was shouting in my ear trumpet, after he put me in a home in forty years.

What made you pick that?


I wish I could spell out the way he says I don't know. It's all one word, said in a comic fashion, and sounds approximately like I ugh no or perhaps ightno, if it was pronounced by a slav with a sore throat. It's his all purpose term for "I dunno," and "whatever," and" so be it, "or perhaps "que sera, sera," as well as occasionally: "Don't bug me about whatever you're buggin' me about any more. "

But he usually says ightno when you ask him how his day at school was, while he's conquering the universe with his thumbs. It was jarring to hear him tell me, by inflection, that he was busy with his experiment, and wasn't interested in being questioned about it right now.

And he showed how the oil and the water didn't mix, and the density of the molasses made it fall to the bottom of the glass of water, but eventually dissolve, and something about emulsification I can't remember now for the life of me, that makes me think it won't be as many as forty years before I'm in that home. He did it all himself.

The he took out the poster board, made a triptych, and started scrawling all over it in his childish hand. The Big One's smart, but his penmanship is AWFUL. He showed his hypothesis, and his procedure to test it, and his data, and his results and conclusions, it was all quite impressive, but you needed a sort of infantile Rosetta Stone to decipher it. Is that an A, or an N?
My god he was proud of it, and we couldn't help being touched by his earnestness. And then I forgot all about it.

The Science Fair is tonight Dad! You forgot. You have to go! I'm going to win!

I had forgotten, and had to rush around to make myself presentable and get him there on time. The Queen stayed home with the Wee One. The Wee One, who is two, would have performed a different kind of experiment at the science exhibit: What happens when I tear all these things into little pieces and break them all into bits, and stomp on them, I wonder, and run around like a cave man troglodyte woad raider?

So it was me and The Big One.

We entered the big room, and I was taken aback. Every exhibit looked like it was made by PHDs, with help from a team of Fine Art Majors, and a Computer Graphic specialist on standby. Well, every exhibit but one. My boy's stood out, that's for sure. Someone had slaved over choosing the fonts on the laser printed charts on the surrounding exhibits, and it showed. Miles still had magic marker on his fingers from scrawling his runes on the cardboard backboard. He had performed his experiment multiple times for his peers and the judges, and I leave it to your imagination what it looked like after a nine year old boy had mixed cooking oil, molasses, and water, over and over again, with his own unsteady hands. It looked like someone had been testing all natural hand grenades at this exhibit, and had to hose it down afterward.

The principal got up and started reading the list of winners. The winners would have their pictures taken for the local paper. The Big One was electrified. I'm going to get my picture in the paper!

The Principal droned on. The prizes were being distributed lickity split.

I looked at my son's Great Molasses Disaster of 2005, and glanced up and down the aisle at the other exhibits. They were all magnificent. Someone had an entire solar system, in a slick black box, with each planet rendered beautifully in full color, and had managed to get the strings suspending the orbs to disappear. I couldn't see how they had done it. Another produced static shocks for the participants, and looked as though it could charge a quarter a play, and people would line up for it.

I thought I'd better temper The Boy's enthusiasm, lest he be too disappointed. Before I could say anything, he says: "Dad, only the blue ribbon for the best of show overall is left, we should stand down front so I can go up to get it right away!"

And he took off, leaving me standing there with:
"Son, you know there's no shame in ..." half formed on my lips.

I hustled up to the front, amongst the scrum of expectant children and parents, and my boy.

Of course he won.

I was agog. More exactly, I was sticky from molasses, and I was agog. The Boy walked up and got his prize, and said a few inaudible words two feet below the microphone, and I was, well proud of him, but humbled.

Because the judges had seen what I should have seen and didn't. My boy had done it himself, and it showed. Boy did it show. But no matter. His experiment worked. It showed the properties he was trying to show. He drew the right conclusions, and scrawled them on his display. In short he did it, when others had it done for them, and the judges recognized it.

But the real lesson was learned by his old man. I'll never doubt that little urchin again.

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