Thursday, September 23, 2010

If the Road Comes to an End, Find a Path through the Woods

I grew up barefoot and suntanned on a farm in rural Maine, the oldest of eight children. My father was a shoe cutter in the winter and a farmer in the summer. All the children I knew in the Maine farmlands grew up barefoot, suntanned, self-confident in the country air, and a little insecure when confronted with city bustle and impersonality.

We were bussed to the city for school. Everything in the city seemed better than on the farm. Our classmates had nicer clothes, shinier shoes, and spiffier haircuts. Life seemed to move faster, and you were supposed to have toys, gadgets, candy, money, fancy book bags, and all sorts of things. The differing levels of affluence were painfully obvious to all of us.

So, when it came time for the science fair, I did not consider the possibility of entering. I loved science, but the cost of supplies was not within my reach as a single exhibitor. I could not partner with one of the city kids because I could not provide my fair share. I could not partner with one of the farm kids because even together we would have no money.

My science teacher would not listen to my explanation. He personally signed up my girlfriend and me and challenged us to figure out a project that we could do with what we had.

"You don't have to buy science," he told us. "Science is all around you."

We picked the topic of light and color, then scoured our houses and barns for anything useful: some leftover pieces of glass from a broken barn window, oddly shaped pieces of wood from the woodpile, and some scraps of wool from my mother's sewing basket. We realized that we had the makings of a display. Perhaps our science teacher was right. Perhaps we could, indeed, make something from nothing.

First, we cut the broken window glass into triangles for homemade prisms. We found, though, that the light diffracted into a multitude of directions so that we could not get the clean spectrum that we wanted. After thinking a bit, we conceived the idea of gluing black construction paper remnants from art class to the flat slides of the prisms to absorb the ambient diffusion. It worked. We made a couple dozen homemade prisms to hand out.

Next, we built a stand by hammering and sawing the pieces of wood to the approximate size and shape we needed, and we hung the scraps of wood on the stand to make a lightproof enclosure. It teetered and sometimes tottered, but it worked.

Using scrap materials was fun. It required creativity and really helped us to understand principles of light and color better than learning about them in a book. We were satisfied that we had put together a credible project that cost us absolutely nothing.

On the night of the science fair, we carefully packed our multi-piece exhibit into some old cartons we found in the barn, lining them with newspaper to keep everything clean. Arriving at the school gym, which had been set up with dozens of conference display tables, we saw the projects our classmates had assembled from beautiful, expensive science kits. Suddenly, our window-glass, black-paper prisms and our rickety stand seemed shoddy. We could not even begin to compete with the blood circulation machines and the fancy optic displays of our classmates. Without a word to each other, we both turned around at the same time and walked out of the gym. We would have gone home, but there stood our science teacher with a stern look on his face. He marched us back into the building.

We spent the rest of the evening in embarrassment, watching the judges look at the impressive, professional-appearing exhibits of the other students. We crossed our fingers that none of our classmates would walk by and poke fun at our display. They did not. They were too busy showing their displays to the judges and parents. Although we did not understand how our homemade apparati could possibly interest the judges, we were enthusiastic about our project itself and appreciative that they came back several times to ask us ever more interesting and challenging questions. We were especially appreciative that they did not laugh at our homemade displays but thanked us and pocketed the prisms that we handed out as if they were just as good as those pretty, store-bought, sparkling ones.

As a seventh-grader, I was surprised and puzzled when we won first place although our science teacher was not. As an adult, I have found many applications of the lesson I learned at the science fair. It is not what you have that counts but what you do with it. Or, when the road comes to an end, find a path through the woods.

Double-posted on Mahlou Musings and Clan of Mahlou.


  1. Elizabeth...This is JUST what I needed to hear today!!!! Thank you with all my heart!!! You bring tears to my eyes!!! Wonderful post!!!! ~Janine XO

  2. Hi Janine, happy to hear from you. I need to drop by your blog -- have not been there in a couple of weeks -- to see how you are doing. I am glad you found this post moving. It took me years to realize just what my science teacher had done for the betterment of my life -- and he probably never knew the impact he would and did have.

  3. this is very inspiring, your post truly and honestly brought tears to my eyes, tears of happiness. your triumph over this situation is truly remarkable.

  4. Aw, thank you for sharing your response, betchai.


Search This Blog