The science of extracting oneself from kids' project


November 28, 1998|By Rob Kasper

I CARRIED the science project, the screw-nail-wailer, into my son's middle school the other day. Notice that I said "the" science project, not "my" or "our." That is a sign of progress.

I am trying to distance myself from school projects. It is a slow process. I have been working on it ever since our first-born entered elementary school. Now he and his younger brother are teen-agers and I still find myself saying, "It is your project, not mine."

I participated in the screw-nail-wailer effort, but in a subservient role. I made several trips to the hardware store with our 13-year-old son. There the kid consulted with Mickey, the guy who works at the hardware store, about the design of the screw-nail-wailer. Somehow this device was going to hammer in nails, and screw in screws, and make a noise similar to a wail.

The conversation between the two of them about how to construct such "a constant-motion device" was gibberish to me. I simply waited at the end of the aisle, and when it came time to pay, shelled out the money for the raw materials.

Later, back in our basement, I helped the kid dismember an old bicycle. The rotating pedals of the bike were supposed to be the power supply, the force that would spin a wooden wheel holding a hammer with a bungee cord attached to it.

I was told to remove one pedal from the bike. I didn't know why. I simply started sawing. It took me about 30 minutes of serious work to get the pedal off. But when I finished, the boss, the kid, reversed his course and tossed the bike out of the project.

I would like to report that I took this decision in stride, that I recognized that part of the learning experience was discarding ideas that don't work. But I had huffed and puffed while dismembering that bike. So when my kid kicked the bike out, I pouted. I tossed my hands up in the air and said something like "I quit" and left the basement in a huff.

As I stewed I recalled that when the kid and his brother were younger, the projects seemed easier and our working relationship was more amiable.

Back in the early days, a school project consisted mostly of poster board, paste and a paragraph or two of "original thinking." My wife's ideas, for example, of how to display the wonders of Carroll County on poster board were willingly adopted.

I also recalled that there had been a disagreement over the placement of a toothpick fort that was part of a Colonial-life-in-Maryland diorama. And heated words were exchanged over which pose a mountain lion, made of molding clay, should strike for another project. But on the whole, these disputes had been minor, involving details, not the central concept of the project.

However, as the kids grew, the projects became more difficult and the dynamics of the workplace changed. In recent years the kids have developed their own ideas about how a job should be done. Instead of being the creative genius behind the project, I have become a subordinate schlepper. I fetch supplies and wheel the project director on his appointed rounds. I hold pieces of wood while the kid hammers them into place. But mostly I hold my tongue.

This has been hard for me. The other day after the bike concept was cast aside, I let myself cool down before going back into the basement and talking to my son.

I suggested that he fire me and recruit a more compatible partner, his classmate Graham. These two were the team that had dreamed up the idea of making this invention for their eighth-grade science class. It just happened that on the day that my kid had been itching to work on the project, he couldn't get his buddy on the phone. So I had been recruited as a temporary worker.

Happily my kid took my advice and let me go. Soon he had called up his buddy and had made definite plans about when they could meet in our basement to assemble their invention. Once the two guys got together and I got out of the picture, the mood in the basement seemed to change. This time when something went wrong with the project, there was laughter, not howling.

There still was frustration. For example, the hammer that was supposed to clobber the nails kept falling off the wooden wheel. But the guys remedied that difficulty by using screws rather than nails to hold the hammer in place.

I was asked to return to the project, as a chauffeur. The car ride to school can be a perilous time for projects. The kid is anxious to get the project into the classroom. The parent is eager to get the thing out of the car, and out of his life.

Unfortunately, few school projects are designed for automobile travel. So unless the kid and the parent are very, very careful, the school project can come to an unhappy end en route. It can get clobbered by a bouncing book bag. Or it can get caught on a car door.

A few years ago, we lost a "heart," when the carefully crafted model of the body's most important muscle took a header during morning car pool.

I was mindful of the unhappy demise of the heart when I arranged the transportation for the screw-nail-wailer. Instead of making the journey to school in the neighborhood car pool, the invention would ride a separate vehicle. So early one morning the kid and I got into the front seat of my car, while the screw-nail- wailer, like a minister of state, sat alone in the back seat.

I parked close to the school building. Gingerly I eased the contraption out of the back seat and carried it into the classroom. My kid told me to place the device on top of a metal cabinet. I did as I was told. Before leaving it, I gave the contraption a slight push. I wanted to make sure it wouldn't fall to the classroom floor if someone bumped into it.

The screw-nail-wailer held its ground. The project directors, my kid and his buddy, dismissed me. My work was done, until next semester.

Pub Date: 11/28/98

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