By: Kase D. Johnstun
At St. Joseph Elementary in Ogden, Utah, the annual science fair was a big deal, and I got lucky enough to set my project next the annual champion, Avak Hasratian. Johnstun followed Hasratian alphabetically, so I had no choice but to witness the long stride of the head science fair judge and her large grin as she pinned the blue ribbon on Avak’s project. Then I got to watch her walk away without even a glance in the direction of my project. Up until seventh grade, I tried, but even if my projects were good, in comparison to Avak’s, they sucked. So I gave up.
Science begins with a hypothesis. Once the hypothesis is sustained, it needs to be tested. Once tested, it’s tested again and again until it becomes a theory. Once the theory is proven over and over, only then can it become a rule, or, at least, a strong enough theory to present at an elementary science fair. This was my theory. I liked science, but I had other priorities like calling girls or writing horrible poetry to girls or thinking about calling girls or writing horrible poetry while on the phone with girls.
So it came to pass that I had to construct a science-fair-appropriate, three-paneled presentation board to explain science beyond that which I had already hypothesized and tested and proved. Good students made boards out of plywood and painted the plywood white to make the text pop off the display. They displayed the hypothesis on the left panel, the tests on the middle panel, and the results on the right panel. Most the students inherited their panel display from an older sibling. I did not. Jake’s board disappeared after his eighth-grade graduation – that’s if he ever had one. He probably used it as a sled, or as kindling to burn his books and uniform. No science-fair ribbons hung from his bed post either.
In seventh grade, I made one big decision made up of a million little decisions to not start my science-fair project until the evening before the science fair. Mrs. Beggar, although her name would suggest it, never asked when we should have the science fair and announced the start date sometime right after the Christmas holiday, with a finishing date after the Easter holiday. The dates seemed too distant to begin.
I only busted out The World Book Encyclopedias when I needed to put together a last-minute report on pandas, volcanoes, or potato energy. If it were any other household, the books would have been covered with dust from such long gaps between uses, but in my mom’s home they were dusted weekly. The spines creaked when opened. The night before the seventh grade science fair, I pulled them down from above the TV to find a winner, a winning project that could be completed in less than an hour.
Maybe a cub scout meeting (that I actually made it to) or maybe an already-opened National Geographic – one of these sources planted the seed of knowledge, true or not true, that a rock created fire in the snow. The experiment would rock, literally. Through extensive research and scientific study (scanning the table of contents of the encyclopedia), I found a sentence that read, “Sulfur pellets can light a fire even in the dampest conditions and have been used in the snow to light fires. Sulfur is highly flammable and is used in gunpowder, matches, and fireworks.”
I imagined the science-fair scene of the next day. The judges would gather around. Their excitement about my experiment would bring classmates, teachers, and janitors to peer down at the miracle performed in front of them. I would gather mounds of snow to make a mini glacier, and wave to the crowd. Then I would hold the tension for just a bit. A story about being lost in the woods during a winter snow storm would pique their attention. Then I would place the snow-starting rock in the center of the mini glacier. And then – bam! The rock would catch fire and only the fire hose could shut the experiment down.
Minutes later, my grandpa took me to his shed and dropped about 40 sulfur pellets in my grandma’s used prescription bottle. He had everything in his shed. After his death, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to find the Lindberg baby, maps to an underground river of beer, and the original copy of the infamous Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee video.
He only asked why I needed them before sending me away.
The inquisition ended with that. In less than 24 hours, the judges and teachers would be blown away by the discovery and would never believe I started the project at the last minute. The display board had to be assembled, the hypothesis written up, and the theory tested multiple times – that could wait till morning.
The next day at 1:10 pm, Mrs. Beggar stood in front of my display board. Instead of looking at a three-paneled, plywood stand, she looked down at a piece of poster board that had been folded in thirds. It did not have the fancy hinges of Avak’s three-paneled plywood board that sat next to it. It hadn’t been folded in thirds evenly, so when I put it down on the table, the third panel, which should have been used for scientific findings but was blank, rose off the table unevenly. It wobbled to stay on the desk. Avak’s perfectly constructed and sturdy display made it look worse than it did in the car that morning when I constructed it. On the board, written with giant permanent markers it read:
HYPOTHESIS: SULFUR ROCK CAN START FIRES IN THE SNOW
I’VE DONE IT MANY TIMES.
In front of the poster board sat a cereal bowl. Water filled the bowl to the top, and a sulfur pebble the size of a peppercorn floated in the water. It had started to dissolve, and it grew smaller and smaller every minute it sat on the table.
“What’s this?” Mrs. Beggar asked.
“Sulfur rock,” I said.
“And what’s it supposed to do?” she asked.
“It can start fires in the snow if you are stranded.” Genius.
“How can it do that?” she asked. Then she folded her arms in front of her, leaned back, and rolled her eyes upward.
“You just have to place it in the snow, and it will start a fire for you. It’s amazing!” I said.
“You don’t need a match,” she said. This seemed so obvious, and I realized it then.
“Nope, no match needed,” I said. Mrs. Beggar gathered all of the extensive scientific data into one hand and carried it from the main hallway of the school, where students’ displays were front and center for all to see, through the backstage of the auditorium, and onto the stage. She pulled a desk out from behind the curtains where the school kept the thrift store props it owned and set the scientific marvel down on it. We stood in the deepest corner of science-fair hell. She moved the wobbly project from its allotted spot right by Avak, and dropped it off behind Gifford Umscheid, behind not only U’s, but behind the biggest slacker in our class. She hoped that by the time the judges got to the end of the projects they would be too exhausted to actually care about my fire-starting rock.
“I’m disappointed, Kase. This is not the example the first student body president of St. Joseph Elementary should give.” She tilted her head downward and shook her chin back and forth. She smiled, but it didn’t look like a happy smile.
“I just need some snow is all,” I said.