Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Superstar Scientist

"I can't believe you're wasting your time on this," complained my mom for the tenth time as she sighed and stomped back upstairs. "It's so stupid."

The 'stupid waste of time' in question was my fourth grade science project, which my Dad and I were currently working on, taking over the kitchen and living room and generally making a huge mess downstairs--which probably explained my mom's frustration. But we ignored her and persevered. After all, this was for science!

Okay, to be honest, I didn't care about science. I cared about the Superstar Board.

Whenever any of us did something our teacher considered worthy, she would tell us to sign our name on the Superstar Board. It was a white sheet of posterboard with the word "Superstar" written across the top in Black marker, but to my fourth grade self it was the Holy Grail. Because at the end of the year, whoever had their name on there the most times was going to win a special prize. She didn't tell us what the prize was...but I knew it had to be something amazing. And I was determined to win it.

But getting your name on there wasn't easy. It was sporadic and random at best, and half the time it was like she forgot all about it (which she probably did). When the year was more than halfway over I only had my name up there three times--which was still more than most, but hardly the tremendous lead I wanted to have. So when my teacher announced that anyone who chose to enter the Science Fair (it was voluntary at my school) would get to sign their name five times I was practically drooling. There was no question about it: I was entering the science fair.

Which brings us back to that night. My mom knew the Science Fair wasn't required, and simply couldn't understand why I would choose to spend so much time and effort for something I didn't have to do. But she didn't understand about the Superstar Board. She didn't understand that I was going for the brass ring. She just knew I was messing up her house. And she didn't like it. Fortunately, my Dad was more supportive. I doubt he understood the glories of signatures on the Superstar Board any more than my mom did...but he liked science, and really, what parent is going to discourage their kid from voluntarily doing homework?

We were investigating, "Will Salt Make Water Boil Faster?" which is about as exciting as it sounds. It involved boiling numerous of pots of colored water, some with salt, some without, and timing how long it took them to reach the boiling point. (In case you're wondering, the ones with salt did boil a little faster). We took pictures of the entire process, which we rushed to a one hour photo place (I had kinda procrastinated on the project...which was probably another reason my mom was so annoyed) and then I spent the rest of the night creating my display board with my thoughts on all the various steps of the Scientific Method. I didn't think it was all that fabulous of a project, but I didn't really care. All I wanted was my five signatures.

So when I turned in the project the next day and signed my name those five glorious times I was satisfied. My teacher gave everyone the date and time of the Science Fair and encouraged everyone to attend, but I wasn't really paying attention. I'd already gotten my reward--and it was so worth it.

Naturally we didn't attend. My mom still thought the whole thing was stupid (her word, not mine), and even I had to admit my project looked pretty lame compared to some of the others I'd seen when I dropped it off in the multi-purpose room. So I didn't really care. It wasn't like I was going to win with my silly pots of boiling colored water.

Except later that night the phone rang, and it was for me. A friend from school, calling to congratulate me. Congratulate me.

My project won first place.

I can still remember the look on my mom's face when I told her. Even I couldn't believe it.

First. Place.

How had that happened?

The next day I collected my ribbon from the principal's office, and it was big and blue with the number "1" on it. My teacher had me hold it up and everyone clapped for me. A photographer from the local paper even came and took a picture of the first, second, and third place winners in front of our projects. As first place, I was in the center, sandwiched between a kid who'd built his own lightbulb (second place) and a girl who'd done something elaborate and complicated with plants (third place). And then there was me, with my photos of boiling water.

To this day, I have no idea why or how I won. I mean...I boiled some water....and I beat a kid who built his own light bulb? But there must have been more to that project that any of us could see, because it even won second place in the District Science Fair. Yes, you heard me right. Second place. In the District.

And while all of that was very fun and exciting (my dad and I certainly had a lot of fun teasing my mom about it), that wasn't the best part. The best part was that my teacher told me I could sign my name five more times for winning the Science Fair. And when I won second place at the District she let me sign it five more times. Fifteen signatures in all, from one afternoon of boiling water. Seemed like a pretty good deal to me.

Naturally I won the Superstar Board contest at the end of the year. I ended up with 19 signatures--clobbering the competition. And what did I win?

A notepad.

It was pink, with a sketch of a duck in the corner, and there may have been a pencil to go along with it--I can't really remember.

Needless to say, I was...disppointed.

But years later I realized something. Yes, the notepad I'd won was lame and totally not worth it. But the Science Fair ribbons stayed pinned to my corkboard for years...and even now, I still have them stored away somewhere. So sometimes things don't turn out to be as great as you think they'll be. But sometimes things turn out way better than you could have ever imagined. The important thing is that you try. Because if I could win first place in the Science Fair with a last minute project about boiling water...anything is possible.

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