I’m sitting in the gym at a local community college. It’s dark outside, early on a Saturday morning when most kids are still asleep. A late winter snow made the 6AM drive through the cornfields of Michigan’s Amish country pretty treacherous, but we all made it and are now safely warming ourselves with bad cafeteria coffee.
I’m watching hundreds of middle and high school students bouncing off the walls with uncontained nervous energy and excitement. They’re double checking their handmade machines, finely tuned to catapult a tennis ball into the center of a target. They’re donning their lab coats and safety glasses and cleaning their test tubes. They’re checking their massive research notebooks one last time.
This, my friends, is the Science Olympiad.
My 11-year-old son and his middle school teammates have been meeting twice a week for the last five months, preparing for this moment. I’ve watched him grow from a kid who joined because his teachers said he should, into a real life science enthusiast. Today means as much to him as any championship soccer game he has ever played.
It’s a long day, each student on our team participating in multiple challenges, but when it’s finally time for the awards ceremony, things go well. In challenge after challenge, our school hears its name called. There are several private schools that seem to win most of the gold medals, but we are consistently hauling in seconds and thirds with an occasional first. Every time a medal winner is announced, the gym erupts in screams and high fives. It’s their Olympics, after all. These are science geeks of the purest kind.
Finally, it’s the moment when the team medals are announced. High stakes. Regardless of how you place individually, only the top two teams get to move on to the state tournament. The kids are whispering about our odds, trying to calculate whether all of their medals will add up to be enough. Miraculously, they are. Second place. State tournament here we come. The team is overjoyed as they run down onto the gym floor. My son is beaming. He has four medals hanging around his neck. He keeps saying, “I can’t believe we made it to state.”
After the awards ceremony, I’m glancing over at his coaches and noticing they’re looking a little ragged. A little less than enthusiastic. Oh well, probably just the result of a long day. The head coach tells the students they will all get together on Monday for a “meeting”, as she says the word with air quotes around it. What does that mean? A celebration? A plan of action? Anticipation abounds.
When I pick up my son after the Monday “meeting”, he hasn’t even gotten his trombone and backpack all the way into the car before he looks down at his feet and quietly says, “We aren’t going to state.”
It was heart breaking to listen to him recount what had happened. How his teachers had laid out their reasons for not wanting to go: Our school never does well at state because we have to compete against all of these private schools and rich communities that get Science Olympiad as an elective; It’s a really long day with a lot of running around to all the buildings and all of the parents would be required to come to make it work and all of our parents never show up; Maybe we can go next year. After they had stated their case, they asked the kids to vote - after they had made it very clear that they didn’t want to go. So, of course most of the kids voted not to go. My son had raised his hand to go.
As we drove home, he tried to make it sound okay. He said he knew he would get another chance. His voice betrayed his words and reflected his disappointment. I was mad. Like the best mama bear, I was ready to call up his teacher and tell her she most certainly would be taking them to state. They earned the right and they were going. That’s part of the deal.
But, there’s another side of the story and that’s what stopped me from making the call.
The head coach is also my son’s science teacher. She came to our school straight out of college and has been teaching there four years, which makes her around 27. She is an amazing teacher. I have volunteered in her classroom and watched her in action. She is motivated, caring, creative, committed. She is working with her students to plan and build a rain garden. She brought in members of the community to help make it happen. I worked with a group of my son's classmates to write grants to help buy the plants, and soil, and signs. She thinks outside the classroom box. I love her.
And she just found out she is on the list to be laid off after this school year ends. Low seniority means first to go – regardless of performance.
Can I really blame her for feeling less than motivated to dedicate two more months of her time to getting these kids ready for the state tournament? No. But, do I think she made the right decision? No. Of course I don’t.
It’s all about the ripple effect.
Michigan’s economy is going to take a long time to recover. My 6th grade son will probably be a high school graduate before things stabilize. I keep hearing stories about reinventing ourselves. Taking all of this infrastructure, the empty factories and the skilled machinists, and creating a green energy manufacturing economy. Politicians, researchers, think-tankers, and business people will tell you that the investment we make in our kids today will reflect a lot of what our future as a state will be. Counter to that logic, our schools are facing enormous budget cuts. Which means good-bye Ms. Science Teacher. Good-bye accelerated learning program. Good-bye Science Olympiad where the engineers, inventors, and out-of-the-box thinkers that could move our state forward are being nurtured.
Every action we take, no matter how small it seems in the big picture of the future, has a ripple effect.
Did Governor Granholm picture my son’s disappointed face when she signed the budget that would cause the lay-offs which would cause the teacher to lose motivation and cancel their trip to the state tournament? I doubt it. When Ms. Science Teacher basically told the kids that it’s not worth competing unless you know you will have a shot at winning, did she think about how that might effect future choices they make? I doubt it. When she implied that our blue collar community of rag-tag kids wasn’t of the same caliber as those other teams, did she think about how that makes our kids feel about where they live and go to school? I doubt it.
I’ve been stewing on this for almost a week now. What to do. What to say or not to say. I believe the teacher was wrong to cancel the trip. But I also believe the school system is wrong in how they chose which teachers get pink slips. And I believe our state government was wrong in how it chose to prioritize expenses and where it chose to cut the budget. And let’s not even get started on the federal government spending money on war vs. education.
It’s a ripple effect. And this time its ripples reached all the way out to my son and his teammates. To the future scientists. The ones who are going to reinvent our world. It’s time to figure out how to change the ripples of exhaustion and resignation back into ripples of hope. And I guess I’ll start by figuring out how to have a compassionate conversation with a gifted young science teacher.
Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others...
he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope,
and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring,
those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
-Robert F. Kennedy