Tuesday, April 06, 2010


In Which Failure is Always An Option...

In the wee hours, Thomas, who is regularly up before the sun, awakened me with a terse reminder that today was the day I needed to drive him and his science experiment to school.

“Get up!” he cried from his seated position at my desk. “The exhibit room is going to fill up fast and I want to get a good spot on the floor. Come on, Dad! It’s time to go learn about science!”

“Don’t need,” I muttered. “Know science stuff.” I’m all articulate like that first thing in the morning.

Thomas returned to his work—finishing up his presentation notes on my laptop and fiddling with a flash drive. “You’re in a state of inertia, Dad. Get up and show me some kinetic energy!”

So, heeding the call of science, I somehow got myself out of bed and into clothes while Thomas finished his work on the computer. Then we went downstairs and dismantled the experiment we—mostly he—had so carefully assembled.

At first, Thomas told me we had a lot of options when it came to constructing an experiment, but a careful review of the assignment revealed that students were expected to build some kind of apparatus that involved dropping marbles down a system of tubes or track, and there had to be loops built in too (well, at least one loop. You got extra credit for however many other loops you could build into the thing). There was a suggested parts list (marbles, tubing, support rods for the apparatus) and even a budget—we weren’t supposed to exceed $25.

Well, our 25 bucks got us a few wooden dowels, a honking big roll of tape and Velcro and glue (for securing your experiment to its base and support structure), and about 100 feet of track. Thomas wanted to use clear plastic tubing, but at several dollars per foot it would have put us way beyond our budget. Plus, as I pointed out, if the marbles got stuck, we’d have to take the tubing apart to get at them. The instruction sheet recommended foam pipe insulation, way cheaper, easier to form into loops, and you could cut them lengthwise in half, doubling the amount of track you could use, and creating an experiment that still made it easy to observe the transit of the marbles and retrieve them if they got stuck.

Fully assembled, it looked like this:




“Well,” said Her Lovely Self, as she appraised the work, “at least no one will accuse him of having his parents help him too much.” She didn’t mean it unkindly. We both had made a pact that we would provide minimal help, feeling—naively, as it turned out—that Thomas should do most of the work on his own. So I had largely consigned myself to any work involving sharp tools (mostly for cutting the track), and proofreading his report, which Thomas had first typed up, then put into a presentation on PowerPoint (his computer skills, honed from his early days as Art Lad, are far superior to mine in this regard).

Thomas still needed a platform to put the thing on and there I deviated from the instructions, which suggested plywood. I had visions of trying to hump a heavy sheet of wood into school and suggested instead that we get a big flat sheet of foam insulation. It was lightweight, yet thick and durable enough to support the experiment--although not, as it turned out, durable enough to tie to the roof of your car without it breaking in half and flying across the boulevard once you exceeded speeds of 20 miles an hour.


I felt a little guilty busting our budget with the purchase of a replacement piece, but 32 bucks still didn’t seem too expensive.

But then we arrived at school and it was clear that we hadn’t spent nearly enough.

The parking lot was packed with giant SUVs and pick-up trucks and even--I swear to God--a rented U-Haul, as parents unloaded massive displays. Elaborate displays. Clearly expensive displays. It was as if we’d arrived at a World’s Fair exhibit of futuristic theme-park rides.

“Oh God,” said Thomas, taking a panicked glance in back at his meager contribution to science. “I can’t go in there with this stupid thing! We have to go back to the house and—“

“And what?” I said.

“I don’t know!” he cried. “Can’t you think of something? You always tell these stories where you come up with something awesome! And pull things out of your butt at the last minute and stuff!”

I tried to explain to Thomas that writing a story on deadline or getting the last word in an argument was not a transferable skill in this instance. “This is not my specialty,” I said, a little plaintively. “If you needed me to write a press release about your experiment, I could probably help you. I majored in communications, not in saving our asses at the science fair!”

A profound silence descended there in the car, as we watched the frigging March of Progress unfold in front of us. It’s hardly an original observation to note the unfairness and inadequacy one feels at realizing that some parents help their kids way too much when it comes to science experiments, but it was a new experience for me. And I felt like a total failure. My son had clearly inherited an intellectual bounty from his mother, but what had his father given him? I had no head for science or architecture or aesthetics, or really for much of anything else. So I could write—big whoop. And thanks to a meager store of improvisational skills, I could think on my feet. Neither attribute was going to help Thomas in this circumstance. This was not a situation where he could write or talk his way out of the fact that other kids had let their parents spend two weeks building elaborate stage productions of science, while Her Lovely Self and I foolishly made Thomas do his own work.

But there was nothing for it at this juncture. So, with heavy sighs, we got out of the car and, as beaming parents wheeled in their displays on carts and hand trolleys, Thomas and I straggled behind with our rolls of tape and tubing and pink foam insulation.

The room was already crowded with parents and their kids, as well as spectators—mostly 6th and 7th graders. This was a homeroom for the upper grades and I remembered then that Thomas, despite being a 5th grader, had been moved into a 6th-grade science class. It occurred to me then to remind him of this fact, but one look at the expression on his face—the expression that warned me not to say anything to him—and I decided to keep my mouth shut. We got a small space on the floor of the exhibit room, right next to a skyscraper made of LEGOs and Tinkertoys (with a hand-crank elevator that raised the marbles to maximum height), and an intricate looping spiral tower that appeared to be modeled on the human digestive system. Thomas stared at it longingly.

“Look, Dad. They used the clear pipe, like I wanted to use,” he said. There was a sadness in his voice that was hard to ignore. But I bent to the task of reassembling our pathetic little tripod, while Thomas worked with the tubing to reform the loops of the track. Because our effort was so simplistic, we were up and running in about three minutes. As other parents fiddled with different pieces of their kids’ experiments (One dad was wearing a tool belt and using a socket wrench to adjust the tension on the metal fittings of his display, a scale-model roller coaster built almost entirely of Erector Set parts), Thomas got his marbles out and did a test run. The ball made the first loop of the track, but fell out on the second loop and rolled away. We made a few key adjustments, but the same thing happened with the next three.

“It’s all right,” I said, a trifle desperately. “What is it they say on Mythbusters? ‘Failure is always an option,’ right?” Well, it was the wrong thing to say. Thomas made an impatient noise and stomped his feet as he went off to get his marbles. I was no help in this regard--I had long since lost all of mine.

I couldn’t blame him for being frustrated. In numerous practice runs we had struggled with breaking the Two-Loop Barrier. The problem was we needed a higher starting point for the marbles to have enough speed to make the two loops. But a higher starting point meant longer dowels and we could only fit so much in the back of the car. In the end, we made the second loop smaller and tighter than the first, but it didn’t always work.

While Thomas retrieved his marbles, I readjusted the second loop for him. My workspace was getting crowded though as, coming in behind me came a dad carrying a huge piece of plywood, painted black with lots of starry glitter on it. He heaved it to the floor and in behind him came four other adults, each of them carrying armloads of dowels and brightly colored Styrofoam globes. Together, this crew hemmed me in and began assembling what appeared to be a scale model of the solar system.

Thomas had returned and stood stiffly by me as this exhibit grew (and grew and grew). Then, in came a fleshy boy who was grinning from ear to ear, looking triumphant, as if he had the whole world in his hands. As in fact he did: he was carrying a store-bought globe.

“That’s the kid in my lab group, the one who always copies off me,” Thomas hissed.

“The Dingleberry?” I blurted, before I could stop myself. But Dad Dingleberry and his four-man construction crew didn’t hear me—they were too busy arranging clear plastic tubing into wide elliptical arcs around the diorama, and fishing them through carefully drilled holes in the Styrofoam spheres.

Dingle Junior handed the globe to his dad, then turned to Thomas.

“Pretty cool, huh?” he said in what sounded like a sneering tone to me. “When I launch the ball from the starting point (here he pointed to a ceiling-scraping tower his Dad was putting up) it goes through the tubing and the tubing goes through each planet. That’s eight loops in all (I counted only seven).” He stood beaming as one of the crew began running balls from the top of the tower down into the loops. The boy pointed to the center of the diorama, where the store-bought globe sat. “See?” he said. “The earth’s at the center and when the balls are finished, they plop right into the top of the globe.”

It’s a great failing of mine as a parent that whenever I’m in earshot of my kids being picked-on or embarrassed, I feel compelled to say something. At this early hour, though, the best I could muster was to observe that scientists had long ago established that the earth was not the center of the solar system. But before I could open my mouth to impart this lame bon mot, Thomas simply snorted and pointed at the exhibit.

“Looks like your balls are stuck in Uranus,” he said.

If I had been drinking coffee at that moment, everyone in the room would have been sprayed in a fine, caffeinated mist. The Dingleberry’s mouth dropped open as if he’d been slapped across the face. The bigger kids sitting on the sidelines overheard the exchange and started guffawing—one pretty girl clapped and hooted. “Way to go, Thomas!” she cried, then turned to a friend. “That’s the smart kid from 5th grade,” she said, in a stage whisper. It was hard to tell whose face was redder—Thomas’ or the Dingleberry’s.

Then two science teachers came in and the room got hushed as they picked their way through the exhibits. I fretted a little with that troublesome second loop, then stepped back. Thomas gave a start as though he’d forgotten something and went to the sidelines to find his bookbag (which the pretty 6th grader handed to him). Then he darted out of the room and was gone.

I stood watching the teachers as they looked at the exhibits and asked students to show them how they worked. I have to say, some of them were very impressive (the one modeled on the human digestive system was particularly clever). The teachers made appropriate murmurs of fascination, sometimes turning and nodding to the beaming parents. Then they started quizzing the kids and my estimation of them as teachers went up a notch. With just a few questions, it was clear that many of the students could barely articulate the science behind them, which had been the whole point of the exercise (that’s right. This wasn’t really a science fair, just a classroom exercise. It wasn’t like there was a scholarship or even a blue ribbon at stake). Only a few students could explain the Newtonian laws behind their work (one confused girl kept calling her display a chemistry experiment, not a physics exhibit).

As they made their way around the room, the teachers were looking increasingly dismayed, which is how I would feel in their shoes. Clearly they had intended this to be fun but educational project for their students, and it hadn’t quite turned out that way. Instead, it had become a show of excess and overweening parenting. I began to see the exhibit room with fresh eyes. Many of the more stunning exhibits didn’t work as well as their makers had hoped (lots of parents were helping their kids retrieve marbles stuck deep within inaccessible clear plastic tubing). But I also saw now that there were several simpler, unadorned exhibits as well and their young makers now seemed to shine as the teachers quizzed them, and came away smiling, secure in the knowledge that at least some students—and their parents—got the point.

Then the teachers negotiated their way around the solar system, which was descending into entropy. The elliptical tubing was sagging in places and the launch tower was already listing to one side after being jostled by parents and kids coming and going. One teacher squinted at the whole thing. “It looks like your marbles are stuck in...the, uh, planet here,” he said to the Dingleberry and his dad.

Then they came to me. Or I should say, to us. I had been so engrossed in watching the teachers that I had failed to notice Thomas’ return.

One of the teachers smiled at my son. “Here’s my computer helper,” he said, winking at me. And I remembered how Thomas had told me that he had helped this teacher one day when the school’s science blog had crashed. It turned out that he had accidentally messed up the Blogger template, something that had happened to a certain Art Lad blog many times. Thomas fixed the problem in a trice and had since earned privileges in the computer lab. Which, incidentally, is where Thomas had gone. He was now holding a small laptop that he had signed out and was quickly downloading his presentation from his flash drive.

His presentation was short, but effective (mental note: hire Thomas to do all my A/V work, next time I’m putting together a lecture). He ran through the slide show and gave his report. When he finished, the teachers asked a couple of questions, then turned to regard my son’s exhibit. Thomas shot me a panicked look and I realized he’d been hoping to dazzle them with his mad PowerPoint skills and distract them from his display. Still, he soldiered on, setting the laptop down and fumbling for the marbles. He dropped one down the chute and my heart sank as, despite all our noodling, it still fell out of the second loop and rolled away. It wasn’t really that big a deal—I already knew Thomas was going to be fine, gradewise. But I felt embarrassed for him as kids, especially the Dingleberry, snickered.

“What happened there?” one of the teachers asked.

“Oh,” said Thomas in an unexpected voice of excitement, as if he’d just been asked about a special feature he was dying to show off. “That’s the Failure Loop.”

Everyone within earshot laughed, including the teachers. “The what?” the teacher asked again.

“The Failure Loop,” Thomas continued evenly. “The ball loses energy after the first loop, okay? So it doesn’t make it through the second loop. What the Failure Loop does is show that you have to raise the launch point higher or make the loop tighter so that the marble has enough kinetic energy to get through both loops.” Then he leaned conspiratorially toward the teachers. “In science you can learn a lot more from a failure than from an experiment that works, you know.” The teachers were grinning now—they liked that—and were still chuckling as they moved on.

Thomas came over to me, trembling a little, but smiling.

“The Failure Loop?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “I totally pulled that out of my butt. But it worked.”

Tears stood in my eyes as I heard these words. I wanted to say something to him, but just then the pretty 6th grader and her friends surrounded Thomas, asking to see his PowerPoint presentation again, and I was quite forgotten. It was getting late and I really had to get to work, but I stood there a minute longer, imprinting that moment in my memory.

I swear to God, I have never been so proud of my son.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Perfect. MM, this is the type of story that makes me treasure coming here. Just perfect.
love it... you did good raising that son of yours MM... He's a good egg...
Way to go Thomas!!!!!!!! (and MM)!!!!!!
YAY, THOMAS!!! Way to think on your feet! That was awesome.

And that was an awesome retelling of events too, MM. This story totally makes my day.
Wow, that was impressive!
Awesome. Good for Thomas and good for you! Way to pull one out Thomas!
Way to go, Thomas and MM. Thank god there are still people like you guys in the world!
That was simply brilliant. On a side note, I know that I myself sometimes "embellish" true stories to make them more amusing or engaging. But if Thomas didn't really say, "Looks like your balls are stuck in Uranus," I don't want to know about it. Friggin' hilarious.
Way to go, indeed! Looks like Thomas inherited some awesome "pulling ideas out of your butt" genes from his dad.

And, I almost feel bad for the Dingleberry.
Looks like he got the best of both worlds... from both parents.

Cool save ArtLad!
I'm all teary- well done Thomas!
I can totally hear Thomas saying the Uranus remark. Funny planet names are almost as good as fart jokes when you're that age. And didn't he make a similar joke when he guest blogged? He cracks me up.

(sorry if this double posts.)
That boy of yours is a smart and funny one. I'm proud, too, and I've never met him!
You have never been more proud of Thomas, and WE have never been more proud of him either.

Way to go kid!
Well, Thomas definitely got his thinking on his feet skills from you, I'd say! The Uranus line was especially amusing.
I'm faint with pride...

Go Thomas!!! :D
Thomas is fantastic!
This story brightened my day- at the start I was getting madder and madder at the descriptions of the "Doting Parents" doing everything for the "Little Darlings". But I kept thinking it's a long game, and in every child's life there comes a time when they have to stand on their own.
I had tears in my eyes at the end too. You've done a good job, both you and Thomas.
I had tears in MY eyes. Congrats to Thomas for not only following the rules and learning a good lesson, but for being an incredible kid!
Perfect story MM. As I read this entry, (more than once I might add)I could completely picture the whole thing. (hmmm tv show based on your blog?) I love how quick thinking Thomas is. He's a chip off the old block. Good for you & Her Lovely Self for making him do most of the work himself. He obviously learned the lesson he was supposed to as opposed to the kids whose parents did all the work. You can tell him I'm proud of him too!
Thomas is my hero. I'm so glad you shared this, MM.
This is my favorite post ever.
sounds like art lad benefitted from both sides.

very cool story, very well told. i have missed you, mm.
I teared up at the end...way to go Thomas!

I'm glad the teachers didn't just ooh and aah at the designs that weren't made within budget, but actually tried to gauge the students' knowledge. And it sounds like Thomas inherited a very special ability from you after all!
That may very well be the most awesome story I have ever read. And that's saying something since I've been reading your stories for some time now. Big high five to Thomas.
He IS his Fathers son. I wonder where he got the term "I totally pulled that out of my butt."....NOT
This is a most excellent story. Someday Thomas will be able to read it and I'm sure he will have a flashback to this point in time. Don't disparage your ability with words, MM. It is also a gift.
P.S. How's Blaze doing?
You have an awesome kid! And you are a fabulous dad.

And I bet you clean up after yourselves when you go to the bookstore, too.
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