Contrary to what you might think, Science Fair is not something a lot of kids look forward to, not by a long shot. Most science projects cannot be done on the bus on Monday mornings, which is when and where our local crop of scholars prefer to do their homework assignments, and so these projects are wildly unpopular, since they cut into the time these kids can spend hanging out with their friends. The younger kids like doing the projects the most; they are perpetually trying to find ways of building an atomic bomb to get rid of their younger siblings, and are almost always disappointed to find that nuclear weapons research has not yet found a way to eliminate the irritating younger brother or sister from the family home and yet preserve their Playstation at the same time. As a result, interest in doing the science projects drops precipitously after the fourth or fifth grades, leaving not a wrack of interest behind.
Parents dislike the projects as well—kids may not get to do these things on the buses, but that does not mean that they will surrender their highly cultivated habit of pedagogical procrastination simply because these projects have to be done, not while there are parents available to do the projects for them. Most parents dislike having to do elementary and junior high school again, figuring that they did it once and that should be more than enough for any given lifetime, and they really dislike having Junior telling them he has a science project due only two or three days before the project is due, especially if they had plans to go golfing that weekend. Grandparents, on the other hand, love science projects. Not that they will actually give the kids and their grandkids anything more substantial than moral support; it’s just that for them, this is revenge for the time their kids, today’s parents, pulled the exact same trick on them and more or less at the same time of year, no less. Some things don’t ever change.
The Science Fair also means a sudden spike in business here at the egregious mold pit, as the kids suddenly realized that in addition to free computer games, the library also offers books on how to do science projects for their perusal. Most kids who use this place do not realize that the books on the shelves are available for them to take out, in much the same way that the computers and DVDs are, and so tend to look at our attempts to point them in the direction of the science project books as a poor and somewhat tasteless attempt to play a practical joke on them. Parents, on the other hand, tend to grab any and every science project book that they can lay their hands on. Most of them have not had to do a science project since they were in elementary or junior high school and are, to be frank about it, somewhat bereft of ideas on how to get such a project done by Monday morning. But in the library, as in life itself, and if Borges was right the two are synonymous (he wasn’t and they aren’t), the early bookworm gets the books. This, understandably enough, upsets those parents whose kids waited until the Saturday before the project was due to tell them about it no end, and led to our putting the collection of science project books on the reserve shelf so everyone can use them, although that does not prevent some parents from trying to steal them.
Of all the people involved in this annual disaster, I think I have the most empathy for the science teachers. They’re the ones stuck doing this thing year in and year out. They don’t really have much use for the Science Fair; the mystery has long since vanished for them, but the fair is part of the curriculum and so they have to assign the projects whether they feel like assigning them or not. Watching the science teachers at the fair is, I think, something akin to watching movie critics sitting themselves down in a theater and getting ready for another heaping pile of Hollywood slop or watching the old newsreels of marines about to land on some godforsaken mosquito-infested Japanese-held island in the South Pacific. There’s a forlorn look in their eyes as they prepare for yet another grim day at the front. I’m pretty sure that for some of them if they have to look at yet one more erupting papier-mâché volcano with its food dyed baking soda lava pouring down the sides and threatening a small but picturesque village inhabited by broken Ken and Barbie dolls they will take a high-powered rifle up to the roof of the nearest school and start picking off the passersby just to relieve the utterly unbearable ennui of it all.
There’s only so many times you can pretend that this stuff is even vaguely interesting, and I’m sure having to tell soothing lies to parents about how well their progeny could do if little Johnny or Janie would only apply themselves and did the work does very little for one’s own morale. Little Johnny and Janie will, in fact, never do the work, not now, not ever, first because they’re dolts, and second, because doing dumb science projects is what parents are for, and third because it means having to move away from their computers and televisions for more than five minutes at a time, which, let’s face it, simply isn’t going to happen; one must have priorities in life, after all, and erupting baking soda, for all the carbon dioxide induced sound and fury involved, is clearly not one of the more important ones.