Conventional Wisdom Ate My Homework

Many decades ago when I was in primary school, we had a thing every year called a “science fair,” which was the school’s opportunity to reinforce the important educational values of shame and confusion.  They never went well for me and are probably one of the reasons why I’m still stupid to this day, but one in particular stands out in my memory.

Here’s the question: if you discovered a foul-smelling box of dirt sitting in an otherwise clean and orderly place, would you consign it to the trash?  Imagine that it isn’t a particularly special looking box; it’s the sort of box one might find in one’s garage or local dumpster.  Imagine ordinary dirt too, not some sort of pricy designer dirt.  Imagine that the smell most likely comes from mold, which may or may not be ordinary.  (We’ll never know.)  Would you dispose of that?

Congratulations, you also could have ruined my childhood.

I suppose I should explain.

At the tender young age of six, my understanding of science was pretty much limited to knowing the word “science.”  I had a brief exposure to Star Trek, but actual science didn’t seem to involve any Tribbles no matter how much I looked.  (I still think it should.)  I didn’t understand how to do experiments; I certainly didn’t know how to present findings.  Science fairs required exactly those things though.  The school clearly wanted my parents to do my work.

I was never opposed to that idea, but my parents weren’t so broadminded.  They rather shockingly wanted me to be involved.  I think, from that point forward, the inclusion of dirt became inevitable.

At that time I had recently discovered a fascinating word: “erosion.”  I don’t know where I found it or why I latched onto it, but I did.  I think I even vaguely understood it: water could move dirt, which was generally bad.  I believe I might have spent more time telling people about it than could be justified outside of certain unpopular college parties.  (Sadly, those would be the parties with which I eventually gained experience.)  It seemed like the perfect topic for a science fair project, by which I mean that it was the only idea I had.

Thus, I packed dirt into a cardboard box and sprayed it with our hose.  That was my experiment.  Was I born to be a scientist or what?  My presentation consisted of giving said box of dirt to my very patient teacher.

Actually let me pause here to talk about the grace with which people typically receive small children.  As an example, my toddler likes to draw “pretty pictures,” which are really just colorful scribbles on crumbled soggy paper.  (Parenthood tip: don’t dwell on the “soggy” part.  You’re happier not knowing.)  We praise every single one and she beams.  Similarly, I turned in a literal box of dirt and my teacher received it as though I were Mozart, Rembrandt, and Shakespeare giving her a piece of her favorite cake.

In any event, this happened to be one of the few times in my life that I turned in my work early.  During the intervening period before the actual fair, my brilliant exposition of hydraulic action in topography became an equally brilliant, if entirely unintentional example of hydrolytic decomposition and mycogenesis.  In brief: the box rotted and mold grew.  (I still may not understand much of science, but my knowledge of the related words has increased.)

Unfortunately, my damp dirt was stored in a dark corner of the school library.  Also unfortunately, no one told the librarian.  When she found a stinky box of dirt, she reasonably assumed that it was a stinky box of dirt and that no one would miss it.  She dumped it outside with nary a qualm.  I suppose I can understand the basic objection to its presence, but it wasn’t as though my dirt talked loudly.

To be honest about it all though, I think my parents were more upset than I was.  They saw it as a cruel slight against my hard work.  I saw it as a reason to play with the hose again.  Nevertheless, my fledgling career as a scientist was permanently abandoned.  From that point forward I associated science with foul smelling garbage and offended librarians.

Now I’m a writer, a person whose work librarians defend, and I always smell like flowers.  Thankfully the schools I attended never had writing fairs.  What might my life have become had they crushed this ambition too?  If people still cared about the humanities, I might not have a vocation!  Oh wait….

I blame my unmarketable life decisions on the economics fairs I endured in secondary school.  At least I always smell like flowers.


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