Science fair flashbacks

I think back to high school, all of those awkward social moments, the never-ending double periods of calculus or physics, nothing was worse than the annual science fair. Nothing. I can look back at every other terrible adolescent memory and think, well, that wasn’t necessarily pleasant, but I got through it, and I’m fine now. But I’m still haunted by the science fair. What a nightmare.


The whole idea is ridiculous. We’re going to tell a bunch of teenagers that they’ve got a month or two to start working on a big science project. “Don’t let it get to be too late!” was the generic advice, our teachers warning us that we’d have to present our final projects in front of everybody, that the whole thing would be something like half of our final grade for the trimester.

And I can only speak from my experience, but of course I always let it get to be too late, every single year. But with so much of my GPA on the line, it’s not like I could ever just give up. That would have been academic suicide. So I had to come up with ever-ridiculous ways to somehow bullshit my way through the science fair.

Freshman year I remember laughing at this kid who started growing silt samples back in September for his science fair project due in March. What a nerd. But then I’d see him bringing in all of these tinfoil trays containing silts of various sizes and colors, asking for constant guidance from the teacher, really taking the phrase “above and beyond” and shitting on it, like ha, above and beyond, that’s cute, I went above and beyond back in October, now it’s January, look at all of this silt I’ve cultivated, not only am I going to get a hundred, I’m going to bring everybody else’s grade down just by comparison, because look at this, what do you have, do you have anything? Do you?

Of course I had nothing. So I kicked it into the next gear. Which wasn’t actually a gear where I got any work done, no, but at least now I was conscious of the work that lie ahead. Whereas before the science fair loomed in the distant future, something that I thought about only when prompted, that once-a-month reminder from the science teacher, “Don’t forget about that science fair, boys. Don’t let it get to be too late!” now I started to feel the ever-approaching deadline encroaching upon my thoughts with more of a weekly regularity.

And then it was February and I really started to panic. Mind you, this was all way before the modern Internet. I mean, the Internet existed, but it was just AOL, a shitty dial-up modem that, even when I connected, it’s not like Google was Google yet, it’s not as if there were a lot of even semi-legitimate web sites to rip off ideas from. Science fair projects must be so much easier now. You go online, you watch some YouTube videos about great science projects, it’s got to be a breeze.

But no, I was in full last-minute mode. I found something about sundials, how you could make a rudimentary shadow clock with your basic arts and crafts supplies. I had my mom drive me to CVS to buy all of the essentials, the oak tag, the foam-core board, scissors, a protractor. And then I started folding things and poking holes and about ten or fifteen minutes later I had this really crappy version of something that, if I told you it was supposed to be a sundial, you might scratch your head and say, “Oh yeah, I guess that kind of looks like a sundial.”

I put it in the sun and I got a reading, only it wasn’t anything close to the actual time. I consulted whichever science fair book I’d checked out from the library, and it turns out I had to do all of this work to calculate my latitude on the planet, like I was supposed to use that data to position the sundial at a certain angle to be able to make any sense.

But then I got an idea, I can just make up all the results. Like, I could go back, I could make a chart that showed what it would have looked like had I actually done all of that work. And it’s not like I needed video proof, no, I could just take a picture of the sundial and put it next to a digital clock that I’d rigged to show exactly the matching time. I did this like thirty or forty times and, bingo, all of the sudden I had months of hard work to show for.

Was I actually going to get away with this? I typed out and printed all of these nonsense paragraphs about sundials, I cut out those paragraphs and pasted them to the foam-core board, making sure to use construction paper as a border, to make everything stand out. In the center of my science fair booth I displayed my really shitty looking oak tag sundial and waited as the teacher made the rounds on the day of the science fair.

“Wow, nice job,” he told me after a cursory glance at my complete fraud of a project, “Ninety-five.”

“Thanks!” I couldn’t believe I’d gotten away with it. All of that stress, the two-month-old pit in the center of my stomach, all for nothing, the whole thing was over in about two minutes. I looked over at silt-boy, standing there with his massive trays of homegrown vegetation. Sure, he got a hundred, but I got a ninety-five, and for a fraction of the effort. Talk about winning the science fair, I don’t care who got that ribbon, I totally won the science fair.

And so sophomore year, I didn’t give it a second thought. I figured I could bullshit my way through the same way I did the year before. I waited until about two weeks before everything was due and I bought a bunch of plants at the Home Depot. I arranged the smallest specimens in one group, mediums in another, and after everything was sorted out by size, I cooked up the results that I was looking for had I actually bothered to do any work.

“You see,” I explained to the teacher the day of my second science fair, “I fed these guys water, these medium-sized plants were given soda, and the small dead looking guys only drank beer.” It’s science. The teacher looked at me and was like, “Well, this is kind of a grade-school project,” and I don’t know if he expected me to say anything back, like I certainly wasn’t going to argue with that, but whatever, look at the oak tag, don’t you like my plant illustrations? I did those with colored pencils.

I got a ninety. I’ll totally take a ninety. I got a ninety the next year also, when I did a complete last-minute science fair project about neon lights. And this one I actually feel a little bad about, like in my total disregard for even trying to show that I put even the smallest amount of work into a project, I’m sure I’ve done a disservice, to my teachers, to my school, to the entire education system.

It was the night before the science fair and, aside from picking a topic, I hadn’t lifted a finger. I don’t even think I had any foam-core. And my mom was like, “You’re waiting until the night before to ask me to take you to buy science fair supplies?” That was when the urgency of the situation started to kick in, like, maybe I had grown a little too cocky in my belief that I could pull anything out of my ass, maybe it was going to be hard to fake a couple of moths worth of work into one last-minute all-night work session.

But I didn’t even need the whole night. I found a speaker from an old stereo system in the basement. Next I took a bunch of cardboard paper towel rolls and wrapped them in different colored construction paper. “As you can see,” I presented everything to the teacher, “These rolls represent neon lights. And this here speaker is a model of all of the science stuff that goes into making the neon lights possible.” And I connected the box to the rolls with wire and printed out all of these charts about neon gas, pictures of neon light clipart that came preinstalled on my computer.

“Ninety?” I remember my mom’s disbelief, “You seriously got a ninety?” I’m pretty sure she almost wanted me to get some sort of a ridiculous failing grade, so I could come home and get punished and learn some lesson about hard work and grades and responsibility. But I got a ninety, and so my mom couldn’t really say anything.

During senior year, the science fair was a little different. Each student had to make a bridge out of thin pieces of balsa wood. The whole thing had to weigh under a certain amount, and on the actual date of the fair, the teacher would attach a bucket of weights to the center of the bridge, the winner determined by who’s bridge could support the most weight.

It was the same night-before nonsense, I didn’t even consult any of my resources, I just cut and glued together a bridge that looked like what I thought a bridge was supposed to look like. And yet I was still a little surprised when the whole monstrosity collapsed immediately after the teacher attached the empty bucket used to support the weights. What did I expect? I doubt I even gave the carpenter’s glue enough time to actually dry, and I walked away from my final science fair with an eighty, the minimum grade, the grade everybody got just for showing up with a bridge.

And I kind of felt a little bad, like that eighty hit me all at once, the realization that I never even gave it a shot, the science fair, I never took it seriously. And what else hadn’t I taken seriously? Which of my other classes did I give only the minimum effort, coasting through with mostly unearned nineties and ninety-fives? Couldn’t I have maybe achieved something if I’d actually tried?

Who knows? All I’m left with is that feeling, not of accomplishment, not even the relief of having gotten away with presenting a totally subpar project, but the dread, that pit in the center of my stomach, knowing each year that I’d have to scramble last minute, sweating while I tried to come up with another way to fool my teachers into believing that I’d actually done some work. And who was I fooling, really?

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