The Child has a big project at school: Build a Rube Goldberg machine. It’s for her science class, and the teacher sends out an email to all the parents, asking us to please give up a room or some space in the garage for this project for a while. It’s a large part of the final grade for the class. Do not let your student wait until the last minute, she says. Also, the only thing mom or dad can help with is the final video, and use of any power tools that might be used in the construction.
Basically, I have to: 1) give up my garage – which is hardly a problem since the remote remains nonfunctional – and 2) not help The Child unless power tools are involved – which is also not a problem, since she will rarely consent to help from Mom, and although we own a couple of power tools, whether or not they are functional is an iffy proposition. They were, after all, previously under the care of The Departed.
She has big ideas, and starts constructing things in the garage. Boxes are moved, things are suspended with twine from the ceiling, long-forgotten k’nex come out of the attic. It seems like there is quite a bit of fun going on out there, or at least it seems like fun to me, whose childhood construction efforts began and ended with living room blanket forts.
She doesn’t seem to think so, and frequently scowls as she comes out of the garage.
I visit every so often to check on progress or suggest items she might use, but my involvement mostly consists of helping her find time to work on this, or reminding her what the schedule is, or, on one occasion, hosing a can of red latex paint off the driveway, where it accidentally spilled after proving unsuitably heavy for its assigned task. She was surprised I wasn’t angry about the paint; I was surprised she managed to spill an entire half gallon of paint and not hit anything I cared about.
On the same evening as the red paint incident, I was out to dinner, I received a text message: I FINISHED!!! It was accompanied by a video that I could not watch in the middle of the restaurant I was in – but I congratulated her and said, I can’t wait to see it when I’m home.
What she had done was rig up a simple pulley system to tip a pitcher that filled a water cup. It worked, although it struck me as a bit simple to be called a Rube Goldberg. I asked about this and was told, It can be any length. I took her word for this until another parent I know posted their child’s video up on Facebook: a lovely gadget with numerous steps involving tinkertoys, semi-professional video titles, and an audience of webkinz. The Child has worked for two weeks, nonstop, and her project looks nothing like this elegant contraption.
I panic a bit.
I question her about the project guidelines, and am told that she followed the instructions, and it can be any length – but it seems to me there must be some guiding principles to the thing that will determine a grade. She insists she got no such thing, and after much discussion and no real information, I leave having only managed to persuade her that maybe she should clean up the area around her project before making her video presentation.
She does this, then reluctantly agrees to add another step to her Rube Goldberg, just to get me off her back. After another couple of nights in the garage, she has rigged up a row of books that will topple like dominoes after being hit by a garden shovel on yet another pulley, set in motion by more book dominoes. This seems more like it – and after much more discussion on the topic, she finally locates the original project outline from the teacher. She’s astonished to discover that that her original finished project would have earned her a failing grade for two weeks’ effort, and very pleased that the current version appears to be a passing grade.
Mom gets off her back and helps her make a video, which she emails it to her teacher. After several days, all the students’ project videos are shown in class. I ask how it went.
I did a lot more than other people, she says.
But did they like it? I inquire.
Yes, it was great, but I did a lot more than other people.
She’s quite angry about this point. I ask her to describe the other projects, and she describes a couple that are very fancy – like the tinkertoy one, and another apparently involving a trebuchet built from scratch – but most of them were just a few seconds long. Nothing like what she did. Nothing like the effort she put in.
I point out that she will probably get a better grade for her project, and she gets madder still. You just don’t understand, she tells me. Never mind.
I don’t. I want her to do the work I know she is capable of, and I want her to be proud of her efforts and be proud of the good grades that come from those efforts. Instead, she’s done a much better project than many classmates apparently did, yet she’s angry about it for reasons she can’t explain.
Not to me.
Still, the following evening, I hear noises from the garage, and discover that all the kids from our street are there, helping her set up her Rube Goldberg machine so they can watch it go – again.
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