I was in the 6th grade when the assignment was given to me. I don't remember too many details of what was expected, only that we had a month or so to have it ready. This was in the days before the internet (1983, Baby!) so I headed to one of my favorite places to search for ideas. I crossed the street, cut through Victor Park and entered the familiar doors of the Henderson Library. I asked the woman behind the counter if she had any books on science fair projects and she expertly turned to her card catalog system and found what I needed.
(As a side note, I was always so fascinated by the library card catalog system. I love the ease of access we have with the internet, but there's something awesome about pulling open a little drawer filled with index cards and flipping through each one until you've found what you're searching for.)
She directed me to the section of the library where the non-fiction books were housed and showed me which area held the books I could browse through. Each book brought greater disappointment as I realized I could never make anything I saw in there. I had no idea that there were stores that sold the kind of materials these projects called for. But even if I did, it wouldn't have mattered. We did not have money to spend on such things.
I left the library feeling defeated. I was a good student who always turned things in on time but this project was impossible. I had no one to help me and I had no idea where to even begin. I felt sick each time the teacher mentioned our projects and reminded us that the date they were due was fast approaching.
The morning our projects were turned in there was a happy, excited buzz about the classroom. Each student's desk held their completed project - everything from intricate marble tracks to re-creations of the invention of electricity to graphs and charts detailing the dissolving of nails in various types of soda. I placed my backpack on my desk so it wouldn't look quite so empty.
Our teacher, Mr. Sylvester, gave each student some time to present their project to the rest of the class. He went down each row and when I saw that my turn would be coming up I asked to use the bathroom. When I returned the students in the row behind mine were sharing their projects. I had momentarily escaped the shame that I knew was inevitable.
When class let out at the end of the day, Mr. Sylvester walked to my desk and asked to speak with me for a moment. I was painfully shy and thought I would burst into tears, fearing that I had disappointed my teacher. He asked if I was still working on my project. I told him no. He asked if I had forgotten to bring it. I shook my head. He explained that the Science Fair wasn't for another week so I still had time to get something done and bring it in. I nodded.
I walked the two miles to the Civic Center Library, hoping I could find something different in their larger selection of books. I told one of the librarians that I needed ideas for very simple science projects, things I could make without spending any money. She found me a book with projects that were so simple in comparison to what the other kids had turned in (each one took less than 20 minutes to put together) that I was too embarrassed (or maybe it was proud?) to make any of them. I also doubted that I had the materials needed for some of these simple machines. However, I checked the book out, thinking maybe I could combine a couple of the ideas to produce something acceptable. As much as I tried, nothing worked out.
On Thursday Mr. Sylvester asked me if I was working on my project. I nodded my head, telling myself it wasn't a lie when I was truly thinking about what I could do. "Do you think you'll be able to get it in by tomorrow?" he asked. I shrugged. I hadn't found anything. Mr. Sylvester was a kind man. One who saw past the shyness and understood some of my life circumstances. "You just have to bring in something, Gerberta," he told me. "I can't give you a grade on nothing. But if I know you've tried your best and brought in something that shows you're trying, you'll pass this assignment. You're a good student." I nodded again.
That afternoon and evening, I scoured the book for something I could create. There was a system of spool pulleys connected by rubber bands that turned with a popsicle stick crank on a piece of foam board. We had rubber bands from my brother's paper route and thread in my mom's sewing cabinet but no empty spools and definitely no popsicle sticks or foam board. I debated carefully unwinding the thread from my mother's spools, hiding the thread, then carefully re-threading the spools later. I searched outside for a stick that could fit into the end of a spool, with no luck. I accepted defeat and for the first time in my life I tried to think of a way to avoid going to school the next morning.
Morning came and along with it came dread. I couldn't stay at home because I would be found out. I couldn't escape to the library because they would know I should be at school. I could think of no other place to hide. I walked into my classroom, avoiding eye contact with Mr. Sylvester. At lunch time he approached me. "No project, Gerberta?" I shook my head, trying to look at the ground to hide my tears. "The Science Fair isn't until tonight, you know. You could still bring something after school. Couldn't you go home and make something before the Fair starts? You could make something simple - even a spool of thread on a pencil can be a simple machine. Do you think you could do that?" I nodded, despite knowing I could not bring in such a mediocre thing which required no effort.
When I got home after school I looked through the book again. Mr. Sylvester was so good-hearted and kind to me. The last thing I wanted to do was disappoint him. I turned each page slowly and would search the apartment for anything that was even close to the needed materials for each design. Each page brought a fresh wave of discouragement until I found the instructions for a pinhole camera. It was simple, yes. But I could bring my lamp and set it on the table, too - that would make it look a bit more exciting. I started to feel like this could actually work out. I went to the kitchen and found that we had a cylindrical box of oatmeal that I emptied into a Tupperware container. I covered the open end of the box with a square of wax paper and held it in place with a rubber band. I grabbed a ruler, found the center of the bottom panel of the oatmeal container and drilled a hole into it with the end of a sharp pencil. It was finished.
I ran to my room and pointed the tiny hole towards the light bulb on my lamp as I looked at my wax paper screen. Sure enough, my light bulb appeared upside down! It was almost like magic. And I can't tell you the pride I felt at having created it myself! On the inside of a cereal box I neatly printed out an explanation of how the camera worked, along with a simple picture that I copied from the book.
The Science Fair had already started so I grabbed my creations and my lamp and hurried toward the school. When I walked into the crowded gym some of my enthusiasm waned. There were parents and teachers walking from table to table as each excited student showed how their project worked. I wasn't sure where to go. I looked around and spotted my teacher. He saw me and smiled, showed me to an empty table and helped me get situated. It wasn't long before the judging was completed, the winners were announced, and we all found our way back home.
I don't think it will come as a surprise that I didn't win any awards that night. But I can guarantee you that there wasn't any child there who was more bursting with accomplishment than I was with my silly little pinhole camera.
That was the day that I realized that I could do anything.