Posted by: trevormeers | June 19, 2011

Take That, Paper-Mache Volcano Man!

Remember the kid who was as untouchable at the fourth-grade science fair as a mid-2000s Tiger Woods? His projects always consisted of something like paper-mache volcanos with working magma chambers that belched lava every 5 minutes, flooding a little model village with red goo and sending plumes of steam billowing from a little model ocean. When he really got inspired, he’d set up plywood panels that explained the working of the nuclear particle accelerator he built with popsicle sticks.

The sod-house project featuring actual, uh, sod.

Meanwhile, kids like me would throw some alfalfa seeds between two wet paper towels, use dried-out Crayola markers to make a sign declaring it “The Miracle of Photosynthesis” and then go out to build ramps for our dirt bikes.

I’m here to warn those of you who haven’t been spending a lot of time around elementary-school project displays lately: The volcano kid is all grown up now. And he’s several decades more clever as he helps his own kids bring it strong to the science fair.

A few weeks ago, we wrapped up Allison’s fourth-grade year at an open house where everyone displayed their work of the last 9 months. We saw bar charts showing how many Hawkeye, Cyclone and Panther fans were in the class. (Allison’s single vote for the Huskers merited not even a blip on the chart colored in the heart of Iowa.) We saw line charts tracking the number of pets in each kid’s home. (If the kid with 136 pets doesn’t have a fish tank full of tetras, then that’s a house I probably don’t want to visit.) We saw biography posters for famous people each kid selected for study. (If an Iowa university has a football stadium named after you, you can pretty much plan to be the subject of most of the fourth-grade boys’ biography projects. And, to be fair, Nile Kinnick and Jack Trice do have stories inspiring enough that you should Google them sometime.)

The all-star displays, though, were the big year-end projects. Each kid could choose from a variety of assignments, including historical models or brochures about “Why You Should Visit Iowa.” Being the daughter of a travel-magazine editor, Allison naturally chose the tourism brochure. But let’s be honest: Her choice was also influenced by my Nancy-boy fear of tangling with the volcano guy’s kid in the model competition, er, project.

At the open house, the project table sat in the back of the room, every bit as intimidating as expected. One girl had built a Native American lodge from roughly 500 twigs, each painstakingly placed in a dome and painted to look like bark. But the real ringer was the sod house, which featured a tiny house built out of actual soil. Real grass grew on the surrounding landscape and over the top of the dug-out house itself. It was missing only a Hobbit.

Lurking behind each of these big-time projects, of course, was not only the whiff of Krazy Glue, but the scent of scandal. Parental takeovers of school projects are roughly equivalent to doping in professional bicycling. You can’t be competitive without it. Everyone knows it’s going on. And efforts to catch the offenders seem a little half-hearted and perfunctory. The grading sheet for Allison’s project included a line for “evidence that child did most of the work.” This, however, didn’t do a lot to slow down the Floyd Landis’ among the fourth-grade parents. I’m not saying Little Susie didn’t personally paint and attach all 500 of those sticks or that little Johnny didn’t personally tend a tiny landscape for three weeks in the garage. I’m just sayin’.

In the end, of course, all this is motivated by parents’ simple wish that their kids will make them proud. And on that front, Allison earned an A+. It wasn’t so much for her Iowa brochure (the target of unfair accusations that the editor dad did all the work), her Helen Keller biography poster or her brilliant jazz riffs during the recorder choir’s performance of “My Paddle’s Keen & Bright.”

I’m proudest of what I saw Allison doing as 20-some fourth graders milled about with their parents and grandparents. She could’ve been running around the room with her friends, laughing at inside jokes, giggling uncontrollably and acting like she wasn’t noticing the boys sticking things to their foreheads. And she mixed in a little of all that. But more of the time, Allison was following her little sister, Katie, around, carrying Katie when she got tired and generally looking after Katie while her mom and I looked over the collected works of the fourth grade.

Alli, the Iowa brochure and the project that really made me proud.

A kid with special needs demands unique things of every member of their family. And based on essays I’ve read from a few embittered adults, I’ve sometimes worried whether Alli will someday resent the attention and general inconvenience Katie required during Allison’s own childhood. When I’ve shared this with relatives, they’ve told me that they worry about exactly the opposite problem: That Alli will never want to leave the sister she’s taken such an active role in protecting for all these years.

As I watched her lug Katie (who weighs almost half of her own weight) through the crowds in the fourth-grade open house, I began to wonder the same thing. And while that, too, would be a feeling we’d have to help her manage, it’s the kind of problem that’s not all bad to have. And while I hate to be That Parent who runs with project night as a chance to brag on their kid, I hope you’ll forgive me for doing it just this one time, even if she has no clue about building volcanoes.



  1. Oh Trevor, you sure have a couple of sweet girls! I love the moments when siblings care for each other and happily give of themselves to show love to the family. And I, too, bubble over with pride when their kind hearts overshadow their surroundings. I have discovered early that though we encourage success in the classroom, it’s always intangible acts of kindness that overwhelm me with true joy. Character – probably my strongest desire for my boys second only to their salvation. What a neat story. And don’t even get me started on science fair projects… 🙂

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