“Journaling is stupid,” Chickadee said to me last night, out of nowhere, as we were driving to pick up pizza for dinner.
I blinked at her. “Ummm,” I said, helpfully. “Don’t you have a diary you write in?”
“Yes, but that’s just it. It’s dumb. People keep telling me it’ll help to WRITE ABOUT MY FEELINGS and you know what? It doesn’t. It’s stupid. It just makes me dwell on the stuff I shouldn’t and I never feel better, after.”
“I feel better when I write about stuff,” I offered. Because it’s true. “But… maybe you’re just more of an action-item type. Maybe instead of writing about how you feel, you’d do better writing about what you want, or making a list of the very worst things that could happen, so you could see things are actually sort of okay.”
“No,” she said, resolute in her conviction, “I like to write. I love to write—stories and stuff. But when I try to write about me it either ends up being ‘Today I did this and this and this’ which is totally boring, or it’s ‘Today I hate everyone’ which is, you know, not really useful.”
I considered this. Chickadee is, by nature, a creature of strong opinions. (I have no idea where she gets that….) Recent events have hardened her in ways that I hope aren’t permanent. When she was admitted to the hospital and the paperwork lady came by with forms, I was answering her questions—address, social security, contact phone numbers—when she asked if we have a religious preference. I said “Methodist” at the same time that Chickadee whispered, “Atheist.” I cocked my head at her, thinking I’d misheard, and she sat up a little and said it louder. “I’m an Atheist.”
This was news to me. (Then again, the last month or so has been filled with things I never particularly wanted to know, so… there you go.)
And now journaling is stupid. Later, it must’ve occurred to her that her disdain of writing in her diary should be clarified as totally different from what I do every day, and she rushed to assure me that MY writing is different. Mine is INTERESTING, she assured me, and about IMPORTANT THINGS.
This made me laugh. I am under no delusions about my own personal minutiae and my reactions therein being any more important than… anything. But I guess I appreciate the vote of confidence.
I did point out to her that some of my writing is purely about recording events, and she waved her hand and assured me that the things I want to remember are a lot more interesting than anything that ever happens to her. When I tried not to laugh and clarified that something like 80% of the things I wish to memorialize have to do with her and her brother, she rolled her eyes and said, “Whatever. You somehow manage it without making it boring or angsty.” Again, her faith (?) in me is touching.
So today I thought I’d tell you about the weekend, because I want to remember it, but I’ll try very hard not to clutter it up with stupid feelings, in honor of the main subject of the stories.
The thing you have to realize about Science Fair, for the uninitiated, is that it SOUNDS like something where you do a project, go to Fair, and that’s it. Time-constrained. A blip on the scholastic calendar. But in fact the kids spend months on their projects, and then there’s the School Fair, followed by the District Fair a week later, and then Regionals about a month after that, and State a month after that. Science Fair pretty much ends up going on the whole damn year, if you keep moving up the rankings.
In sixth grade, Chickadee did a pretty elementary project, but it was enough to get her passed up to Regionals, which is a whole day off from school to go be science geeks at a local college, and she went and had a fabulous time and didn’t win anything, but was determined to do better the next year.
In seventh grade, Chickadee did a much more ambitious project, scored first in her category at Regionals, and went on to win second place at State, which was pretty exciting. But many of her friends won “special awards” that are given out at Regionals, and she began scheming this past summer because she desperately wanted a special award. (Special awards are things sponsored by outside organizations, and can be things like military awards, young women in science awards, best innovation in engineering, stuff like that.)
So this year—eighth grade—she faced a potential double-whammy; not only did she REALLY want to win a special award, but Science Fair is divided into Junior and Senior divisions (middle school and high school), which means this is her last year in Juniors. Once you move up to Seniors, you’re kind of starting all over again—it would be odd for a freshman to beat out a senior, etc. So she was determined to do a project that would WIN BIG.
Her project was complete before Winter Break. But School and District Fairs came in January, when she was getting sick, and everything felt like it was unravelling. To complicate matters, one of her nerdling friends who typically does very well at Fair was also in her category. Chickie was sure she would not advance.
But she won School. And then she won District. (Her friend took second both times.) And then she went into the hospital.
Friday was Regionals, and I offered to stay with her for the day, but she said no, she’d be fine. I left her (she only texted me about ten times during the day) with her friends and when I came back, with Monkey, for the evening awards ceremony, the first thing she said to me was, “I don’t think I’m going to win. There were some really incredible projects in my category.” I patted her knee and told her let’s just see what happens.
[Sidebar: If I was going to write about feelings, I'd tell you that I don't give a rat's ass about Science Fair and awards right now, in the general sense, but given the stretch of hard luck this kid has had, YOU BETCHA I was hoping against hope she would nab a special award, and yes, a first place in category so that she would advance to State. It means so much to her, and could do so much more for her right now than just me reassuring her that she is still her, still smart and capable and wonderful.]
Awards started with the special awards, and about halfway through they announced that a local Nature Tour company is sponsoring a new award this year, given to an outstanding project in the area of ecology. And then they read Chickadee’s name, and we all cheered and she went up to get her certificate.
One of two goals achieved, and a good sign, too—usually the kids who get special awards also place in the regular rankings.
Next came third place Junior awards. Chickie’s pal in the same category got third place, which caused Chickadee to lean over and whisper to me “If she got third, I bet I only got second.” I patted her again and murmured that she should just wait and see.
Third place Senior awards came next.
Then second place Juniors. Chickadee’s name was not announced. She and some of her friends all began to vibrate. Was it possible they had all placed first in their categories?? Maybe!
Second place Senior awards.
Throughout all of this, I was texting back and forth with another mom who was sitting far behind us, as well as with Otto, who for three years running now has managed to schedule himself out of town at a workshop on Regionals day. The texts are all a jumble of “Third place now. DYING.” and “Second place. I think I’m going to be sick.” etc.
Time for first place Junior awards. “Here we go!” my friend texted to me. Name after agonizing name was read. No one from our school was called. With each name my stomach tightened a little bit more. Finally, they called one of Chickadee’s friends. A few names later, another. One of the things I hate about Regionals is that they don’t announce categories during the place rankings, so you have no way of knowing if your category has already awarded a winner or not (unless you recognize the project name). More names. More frantic texts. And then: “That concludes the first place awards in the Junior Division.”
They moved on to first place Senior awards while we sat there, stunned.
Monkey started crying. Chickadee looked like she might throw up. I was trying to shush Monkey and make sure Chickie was okay, plus I was texting with my friend and Otto a lot of things that looked like, “I am baffled. Maybe… there was a mistake?”
All I could think was that this was about to be a complete disaster. She had worked so hard, had won first twice, already, and her comment sheet from the judges was positively GLOWING. This is the first year she didn’t have a single “constructive criticism,” even. How was this possible? And could she bear the disappointment?
The first place Senior awards were quickly concluded (there are never as many high schoolers as middle schoolers, in our region), and then the announcer said they have a new overall award this year, and the winners of that one will go on to State as well, and my friend texted me “Maybe this?” But just as her text came through, the announcer went on to say that it’s for one Junior and one Senior who didn’t have any sort of lab access for their experiments. Chickadee actually worked with a scientist at UGA this year, and had lab access, so no.
We sat there, in silence, as that award was given.
“And last but not least,” the announcer continued, “we always award a Grand Prize to one Junior and one Senior, and these winners also go on to State. These awards represent what the judges feel were the very best projects across all categories in their age division at the Fair this year, and is the top prize we award.”
I wracked my brain. I couldn’t remember for the life of me if in previous years Grand winners had also been given a first place in category award. Had they? I COULDN’T REMEMBER.
And then they announced the Junior winner was from our school, and then they were reading Chickadee’s project name, and her name, and all of her friends screamed and jumped out of their seats, and Chickie’s face split into a huge grin. She fairly bounced her way up onto the stage to accept her trophy, and when she returned I hugged her and Monkey hugged her and I said, “How do you feel?”
“MYYYYYY PRESHUSSSSSSSS!” she answered, cradling her trophy. Heh.
(Later, we realized it’s like Toddlers and Tiaras—they don’t double-crown, so not getting a “regular” rank was actually a good thing. This prompted Chickadee to try to wear her trophy like a tiara, but it was too heavy.)
We went straight from the Science Fair awards to an event at Hippie School, and Monkey went straight to his teachers to tell them the good news about his sister, and everyone fawned all over her and ducked her head to hide her smile while we all gushed about what a marvelous, marvelous SuperNerd she is.
But then, we had to go home early (Mario’s parents were kind enough to bring Monkey home later), because the next day Chickadee and I got up at the crack of dawn and got on a school bus with the rest of her Reading Bowl team to head to a divisional competition far, far away.
[Sidebar: If I were talking about feelings today, I would tell you I had MANY, MANY feelings when the team's coach told me on Friday afternoon that Chickadee would not be allowed to go to this competition without a separate chaperone, owing to her "recent medical problems and school liability policy." Had I been planning to spend 16 hours on a school trip this Saturday? I had not. Did I think it was necessary for Chickie's health? Not really. But we made arrangements for Monkey and off I went. My daughter suggested I should go to the restroom at some point during the day and she could then fake a seizure or something just to freak out the coach, and I'm not going to lie, I thought that was actually a pretty good idea.]
We rode the bus for many hours and then stopped for lunch and rode the bus some more and arrived at the competition. Chickadee had missed Regionals, had missed nearly a month of practices, but once she returned she knew her stuff and was quick on the buzzer and was still allowed her spot as a starter, so hopes were high.
Their first match was against the other local school they tied at one level and then lost to at the next. Competition was tense. They tied.
Their second match, they tied again.
Third match, they lost by one question. The kids were starting to wilt. “Remember, it’s total points,” the coach kept reminding them, “and you have no idea how the other matches are going. Don’t lose focus.”
They won their fourth match by a wide margin. I actually felt bad for the other team.
Their fifth and final match, they won by a single question.
Then we waited. In the event of a tie at any place level, there would be a 5-question tiebreaker round. Teams were to wait to find out if they were done or would need an additional round. We waited and waited.
A judge came into the room and dismissed the other team, and asked our team to come to another room for a tiebreaker. “What place??” the kids asked. The judge told them they’d just have to wait and see. The kids groaned.
The tiebreaker round had five questions. The other team got the first question. Our team got the second question. On the third question, the other team buzzed in, answered, were told they were correct, and the scorekeeper was recording their points when Chickadee raised her hand. The coach walked over and Chickadee whispered to her. The coach stood up and said to the moderator, “We challenge the answer.”
Reading Bowl is a funny thing. There’s all these rules about how and when you can challenge, and then they go consult the book in question and make a ruling. We waited. And waited. And finally the moderator came back and said they agreed with the challenge, that answer was incorrect. Our school would now have the opportunity to answer. Chickie buzzed in immediately and gave the correct answer (slightly different than the answer originally given).
Then the other team’s coach decided to challenge the question itself, which led to a prolonged discussion between the moderators and the coaches out in the hall, and that was a whole drama unto itself (I found out later), but the bottom line was that the other coach wanted the question thrown out, even though they would’ve happily taken the points if their original answer had been deemed correct. The moderator ruled that the question would stand.
Fourth question, the other team answered correctly. It was now dead even, with everything coming down to the last question.
Our team buzzed in. And got it right. Winners!
Of course, competition had been so tight all day, they were convinced they’d just secured third place, or maybe second if they were lucky. We headed off to awards to find out. The elementary level awards were first. Then participation awards (translation: you didn’t place) for middle school. The team they’d beaten did not get a participation award, which meant we had to have placed at least second, with the other team taking third. But then they announced third, and it was another team. Which meant… the team they beat had taken second, and they were the winners, by a single question.
[Sidebar: If I were writing about feelings today, I'd tell you that the opposing coach, in arguing the supposedly suspect question out in the hallway, actually told our coach that her kids really wanted to win this one for her because she has cancer. And I'm truly sorry that she's ill, but WHAT THE HELL? Talk about dirty pool. Lady, this isn't Whose Story Is Saddest Bowl, this is Reading Bowl. And if you want a sad story, WE HAVE ONE TOO, THANKS, but that's all immaterial. Nonetheless, during the awards, I happened to be sitting in front of a group of parents from that other team, all of whom were grousing about how our team won unfairly, the question should've been tossed; and when their team was announced as second place winners I made sure I cheered REALLY loud for them and turned around and complimented them on what a wonderful job their kids had done, truly fierce competitors, what an exciting day, and I smiled sweetly as I did it.]
So the kids got a giant trophy and they’ll be going on to the final, state competition next month.
We got lost on the way home (the bus driver missed a turn, and the fun thing about rural Georgia is that a missed turn can actually add a good couple of hours to your drive, oh yes it can), but the kids didn’t care—they snacked and chatted and sang and had a grand time. After we stopped for dinner, Chickadee left her pals at the back of the bus and came up front to where the coach and I were sitting.
I stroked her cheek. “Pretty good weekend, huh, kid?” She smiled and nodded. The coach said, again, how proud she was of everyone, but especially of Chickie, coming back after everything that had happened, playing so strong, and challenging that question that turned out to be the difference between winning and losing. Chickie nodded again, then curled up next to me, leaned over and put her head in my lap, and fell asleep.
We rode the rest of the way back while I ran my fingers through her hair and patted her hip periodically.
“She must be exhausted,” the coach said to me, as we watched her sleep.
“It’s been a big weekend,” I said.
Yesterday Chickadee slept late, then napped in the afternoon. It was what she needed. When we had that conversation in the car, on the way to get pizza, I was surprised to hear her pooh-poohing journaling in the wake of such a wonderful couple of days.
We went in, picked up our food, and headed back to the car. As we drove home, I said, “You know, you’ve had a tough run this year. No one would blame you for focusing on the hard stuff, and for feeling like life is just more difficult for you than for most other kids, and like that’s totally unfair. But you just had this incredible weekend—one that YOU MADE HAPPEN because you are smart and strong and a hard worker—and that’s the sort of thing I love to write about, do you know why?”
“Because it’s happy?” she guessed.
“Well, partially, I guess,” I said. “But it’s more than that. It’s because how you feel when this stuff happens, it fades. You’ll have another bad day, and you’ll feel like you always feel that way, discouraged and sick and powerless. But if you take the time to write about how you felt when your name was called on Friday, how you felt when you realized your team took first on Saturday, it makes it easier to remember. It gives it some permanence and power. It forces you to really know that the bad stuff isn’t all there is. You know?”
She considered this, then nodded. We rode in silence for a minute.
“I still don’t really think it helps,” she said.
“That’s okay, baby,” I said. “It helps me, which means it helps me help you. And I’m writing it down.”
She smiled. And I wrote it down.
[Sidebar: And if I was talking about feelings today, I'd tell you that this weekend I saw my sweet girl smile and laugh and work and play and look just like every other kid there. And it felt amazing. It felt like healing.]