THE SCIENCE FAIR

Spring 1992


It started with a question about papier-mache, almost a month ago.


Kacie approached me one weekend and asked if I knew how to work with papier-mache. I was busy and said I would "check into it later." Secretly, I assumed this was just another one of Kacie's here-today, abandoned-tomorrow ideas. Now I am ashamed of myself for brushing her off like that, but if I'd known where all of this was going to lead, I might have handled it very differently. Then again, had I gotten involved early on, the whole thing might not have turned out as delightfully as it did.


But I dance ahead of myself.


Eventually it began to filter into my brain that the school was having a Science Fair, and that both of my daughters wanted to enter an exhibit. (Separately -- of course.) In my own defense I must explain that these final few weeks of school are a flurry of activity ... field trips, Girls Scouts, dance recitals, softball, church, birthday parties, ad nauseum. Our days are a constant juggling act. So it's understandable, perhaps, that the first few times the Science Fair was mentioned, it escaped my notice. Kacie did seem to suddenly be very interested in the solar system: I noticed library books on the subject laying on her bedroom floor, and she began reciting the names of the planets to me while I cooked dinner.


"Do you know how the planets got their names?" she asked me one evening, and we had an interesting discussion about mythology and early astronomy. Eventually I put two and two together and understood that Kacie wanted to mount an exhibit about the solar system for the Science Fair. Even then, I was vaguely patronizing: "That's nice, Sweetheart," was pretty much the extent of my response.


At this point Jamie hadn't come up with a project of her own yet. Once or twice I found her leafing through reference books or stacks of old Highlights magazines, looking for ideas.


The day that the big sheets of cardboard came home from school with the girls was the day I realized how serious they were about entering the Science Fair. Jamie had finally settled on a topic: "Plants And How They Grow." She also had a partner, Emily Johnson. Kacie steadfastly clung to her solar system idea, and was working by herself. The sheets of cardboard - three feet high, four feet wide - were backdrops for their exhibits, to be decorated in any manner they wished. On the next hot and sunny Saturday, Kacie spread her backdrop out in the back yard and painted it a vivid, eye-popping purple. Then she painted four big hearts with arrows piercing each, and at the top she painted the words "Qustons" (questions), "How were the planets names?" and "How many wrings dose Satern have?" She worked diligently on her backdrop for most of the weekend; in the evenings she was covered with purple paint from head to toe, but almost maniacally happy.


In the meantime, a row of neatly-labeled flower pots appeared in my laundry room window, sporting labels that read "Talk nicly 15 min. every day" and "Listen to rock music 15 min. every day," etc. Jamie and Emily had decided to grow several identical marigold plants under different conditions and then compare the results. It was typically Jamie: organized, ambitious and creative. Emily came home with Jamie after school and they worked on their backdrop together, which - like the rest of their project - was neat and organized. Jamie was definitely in charge, Emily the meek and subservient partner. The seeds in the laundry room began to sprout, right on schedule. There were occasional feverish telephone conversations about the project, and in the afternoons I could hear Paula Abdul music wafting from Jamie's room, played for the marigold whose fate it was to listen to "rock music 15 min. every day." Jamie's Science Fair project was moving along like clockwork, and she was smugly certain a blue ribbon was in her future.


Kacie's purple backdrop, meanwhile, lay untouched and forgotten in the back yard for several days while she worked on constructing "planets" for her display. The papier mache was a fiasco. I had, by this point, adopted a strict hands-off policy about the whole thing. Reports were filtering in about parents who had virtually take over their kids' Science Fair projects, and I pontificated about the "injustice" of this. "How fair is that to the kids who do all the work themselves?" I sputtered indignantly. Kacie, unfazed by my reluctance to get involved, stoically plodded along, trying out new methods of "planet construction." She was certain that she, too, was destined for a blue ribbon.


And then disaster struck. The unfortunate purple backdrop was left unattended one night when it rained, and the next day - it was gone. It was assumed that Dad had hauled it off to the garbage, impatient with what he perceived to be an abandoned mess. That, I figured, was the end of the solar system. Kacie didn't say much about it. I decided that she must not have cared very much, one way or the other. There was no angry outburst, no tears. I chalked the whole thing up to experience and figured Kacie had, too.


What I hadn't counted on was Kacie's tenacity ... the remarkable resiliency of her spirit. This is one kid who takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'. Once an idea is planted in that sweet freckled head of hers, nothing can stop her.


Two days remained until the Science Fair. Emily came over after school again, and she and Jamie put the finishing touches on their backdrop. The marigolds were all lush and healthy (which seemed, somehow, to undermine the hypothesis of their experiment -- but I resisted pointing this out), and the girls arranged them neatly in my redwood planter. They rehearsed their answers for the judges' interview. Jamie was getting a little tense by now, and she drilled Emily mercilessly. This project was her "baby," and she was determined it go off without a hitch. I made my token suggestion about the backdrop, gently correcting one misspelled word: Jamie took the criticism graciously. She was still sure she was going to win first place, but she was a little nervous now. I reassured her as best I could, reminding her that the point of the Science Fair was to have fun and to learn something. She agreed, but I could tell that deep down inside winning still meant everything here.


I went into the laundry room to take clothes out of the dryer, and glancing out the window I caught sight of Kacie in the garage. She was hunched over the garage floor, feverishly taping several pieces of corrugated together with duct tape. "Oh my God!" I said, astonished. "She's still working on the science project!" At the eleventh hour, yet.


Jamie joined me at the window and nodded. "She's been working on it for a few days," she said. I was flabbergasted.


Just then Ray came home from work. Kacie looked up at him and smiled. "Wanna see my Science Fair project?" she asked him, hopefully.


But Ray, exhausted and distracted, didn't hear her. "What are you doing with my duct tape?" he snarled at her. All the joy and hope drained from her eyes; her shoulders sagged, and my heart did a queasy little flip-flop in my chest. Kacie feebly started to explain what she was doing, but Ray clearly wasn't listening ... he was all over her about the tape, the mess, the intrusion into "his" garage. Kacie burst into tears. "No one cares about my project!" she sobbed, and my heart shattered. Here she was, making a brave last-minute attempt at a comeback, and all she got was criticism and harsh words.


"Kacie, I want to see your project!" I shouted from the laundry room, and I flew out to the garage. Instantly, she was herself again, all life and energy. Chattering a mile a minute, she set up her backdrop and began arranging her display for me. My heart sank. It was such a sad-looking little thing ... the pieces of cardboard she'd taped together were torn along the top, and the backdrop leaned to one side. She had crumpled up balls of tissue paper to make the planets, and they hung in a bunchy row from a string: "Satern" threatened to fall off at any moment. Compared to Jamie's neat careful plant exhibit, Kacie's solar system seemed a little ... shabby. I was suddenly terrified that she would be the laughing stock of the Science Fair. And yet, Kacie stood there with an expression of such dignity and quiet pride that I swallowed my doubts. I hugged her and said, "You've done a fantastic job."


And then a funny thing happened. At that moment I saw the display through Kacie's eyes, and it suddenly didn't seem shabby at all ... it seemed to symbolize determination, and resourcefulness. It had a charm all its own. No one would be able to doubt for a minute that Kacie did all the work herself! I prayed that whoever was doing the judging at the Science Fair would recognize the value of that.


The day of the Science Fair dawned clear and warm. Emily showed up after breakfast to help Jamie carry the plants and the backdrop to school, and they walked down the street, exuding brisk self-confidence. Kacie struggled along behind them, lugging her backdrop: every few minutes she had to stop, set it down, and regroup. One of the tissue paper planets fell off and rolled into the middle of the street: she picked it up and stuffed it into her pocket, then turned and waved at me with a determinedly cheerful smile. I stood at the window, watching her valiant struggle, and I shot a quick prayer to God: "Please be gentle with her heart today."


For the rest of the day my thoughts were never far from the Science Fair. I knew the judging was scheduled for early in the day, so we'd know the results when they got home from school. I wondered how I was going to handle this. Would Jamie be a gracious winner? Would Kacie handle her disappointment well? How would I congratulate one and console the other? I made an extra-special after school snack, quesadillas and strawberry Kool-Aid, and as the clock moved closer to 3:30 I sat quietly in the living room, preparing for the turmoil ahead.


The kids came in with their usual burst of noise and exuberance, but to my astonishment it was Jamie who stalked through the living room with a tear-stained face and went wordlessly to her room, slamming the door behind her.


Kacie joyously announced, "Guess what? I got SECOND PLACE!" I felt a little like Alice, gone through the looking glass. Kacie was utterly radiant, and I hugged her with genuine pride. But I was still confused. With Jamie out of earshot, I whispered to Kacie, "What happened to her?"


"Oh, she got Third Place because Emily messed up," Kacie said. There wasn't the slightest trace of smugness in her voice, no gloating over her sister's misfortune. Jamie stewed alone in her bedroom for a while, and then she came out and flounced onto the sofa. "It's not FAIR!" she wailed, tears filling her eyes. Apparently everything had gone like clockwork until the interview, at which point the hapless Emily choked. In spite of repeated rehearsals of what they would say to the judges (carefully scripted by Jamie), Emily panicked and deviated from the prepared answers. They lost several crucial points as a result. "I hope you didn't make her feel bad," I said, but the look in Jamie's eyes made it clear that Emily Johnson was toast. I let her pout about it for a while longer, but by evening she'd cheered up a little. I reminded her, in my best wise-and-wonderful-Mom voice, that anyone who looked at her exhibit couldn't fail to appreciate the time and work she'd put into it. And I meant it. Once she managed to get over some of her disappointment, I think she knew it, too.


That evening we walked over to the school and attended the Science Fair. The gymnasium was hot, noisy and crowded, and it reeked of sulfur - the result of six separate "volcano" exhibits. Armed with my camera, Kyle trailing along behind me, we walked up and down the rows of science projects. Here was Jamie and Emily's, with its neat row of potted marigolds and the white Third Place ribbon. I took a picture with Jamie sitting in front of her exhibit, smiling bravely. Then we continued going up and down the rows. A lot of the exhibits should just as well have had signs on them saying "ENTERED BY SO-AND-SO'S DAD" ... they were so sophisticated and professional looking, it was obvious that the parents had done all the work. Finally, somewhere in the middle of the third aisle, I spotted it: "KACIE'S OUT OF THIS WORLD EXHIBIT." It was still leaning to one side, and "Satern" still wanted to fall off, but now the exhibit bore a stunning red ribbon. Kacie fussed over it for a moment, straightening the crooked backdrop, before I took a picture. "Sweetie, it's beautiful just the way it is," I said. And I meant it. Kacie had set out to do something, and she'd done it in spite of obstacles and set-backs. She is one remarkable kid.

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