On Being Dumber than a Fourth Grader

An email appeared in my disregarded inbox. The boys’ school wanted to thank parent volunteers for offering their time during the school year by giving them tea and coffee and having them sit in a gym for an hour. I mentally reviewed the contribution I’d made over the course of the year to either boy’s schooling, which amounted to notmuch, and went about my business.

Basically, I was not worthy of attending a volunteer tea. Or so I thought.

Around the same time, I started seeing emails from the Hen’s teachers about ‘Caine’s Arcade’. (Do you know about the 9 year old’s cardboard arcade that inspired the world?!)

‘Are you going to volunteer for Caine’s Arcade?’ the Hen asked me as we were walking home from school, ‘you need to sign up!’ ‘Sure,’ I replied, the same vague, dismissive ‘sure’ I offer anytime a decision is not immediately required.

I hadn’t really considered what volunteering for the arcade would entail – I assumed it was supervisory in nature; an attempt to manage 400 plus kids traipsing through a gym filled with cardboard games created by children of varying skill and attention to detail. And then the SOS email appeared: ‘we need parents to help kids put together their games and we don’t have anyone signed up for tomorrow!’

Having assisted the professor a time or twenty during our college years, cutting architectural models out of cardboard with one half-open eye fixed upon the clock and the hours-away deadline he needed to meet, I am well aware of my weakness in the area of cardboard cutting. The twenty-plus years since have not allowed me to forget the feel of an x-acto knife slicing an errant diagonal line when ‘straight, down’ was required.

Nor the professor’s face as he mentally weighed the cost of having terrible, unskilled assistance or no assistance at all. As well as coming to grips with the fact that he was signing up for a life-time with a woman who could not cut a straight line, when capable, skilled women were scattered all around his studio carefully crafting their own designs.

Obviously, given my skill-set and preferences, I replied to the SOS email with a ‘sure, I can be there tomorrow from 12:30-2:30.’ Because I hadn’t volunteered at all. And the Hen had asked. And surely I wasn’t less skilled than a fourth grader.

‘You are the best!’ the teacher replied immediately to my sacrificial offering. ‘Best’ might have been an overstatement for someone who had not darkened the door of the classroom, save the ten-minute parent teacher conference.

Just past noon, the next day, I walked into the school and was somewhat surprised to find they had not incinerated my volunteer badge, though it was, conspicuously, at the very back of the ‘J’ section. I entered the Hen’s classroom, into the chaos that is twentysome 9 and 10 year-olds attacking flattened cardboard boxes with scissors and box cutters, feeling my 120 minutes of service lengthening with every step. I surveyed the progress, stopping here and there to see what students were creating. ‘I made a fulcrum,’ one precocious student announced. Had she not gestured in the direction of said fulcrum, I would have had no idea what she was talking about because, apparently, I am less skilled than a fourth grader. Or, at the very least, dumber.

A fulcrum?

Neverheardofit. OrifIdidIforgot.

There were some glorious years in my late teens and early twenties when I felt exceedingly intelligent and generally marveled at my smartitude. Or, more accurately, I was not so keenly aware of how much I did not know. Sure, there were obvious deficiencies, mostly in that subject called science but nothing a solid memory of the contents of the periodic table and whispers of knowledge regarding rudimentary genetics couldn’t mask. And if discussing eye color or recalling that Pb was LEAD didn’t do the trick, I could always rely on my knowledge of the times table as a distraction technique. (Only up to 12×12.)

But, twentysome years past the glorious naivete of my youth, I frequently find myself relying on a technique tested in many a classroom setting when I had no idea what the teacher was talking about: nod attentively as though pierced, to the core, by whatever they were saying. Followed by fervent, pretend, note-taking. Or, in these non note-taking days, extricating myself from the situation tout de suite. Thus, I nodded attentively about the fulcrum, and walked away.

In the middle of the class stood a blue-eyed child (who happens to have two brown-eyed parents) with a troubled look upon his face. The rest of his classmates were tearing into cardboard with, sometimes, frightening results, cutting holes and creating walls with tape – devil may care about the outcome. But the boy appeared paralyzed by the reality of translating the vague idea in his head into something that might approximate a game kids could play. And, ideally, a game that would not suck.

Clearly the child, my child, needed help. From the parent volunteer who’d signed up to offer help. Every project and assignment I’d ever had to do but were clueless about flashed before my eyes and my first, second and third instinct was to say to the Hen: ‘let’s take all this stuff home and have dad figure this out.’ Or his older brother, who ended up making a Caine’s Arcade game ‘just for fun.’ (Possibly to twist the brotherly knife a la Vernon God Little.)

But alas, us two, like-minded erratophobes* were stuck with each other. On a stage of sorts, with twentysome pairs of eyes and ears keenly interested in how this ‘situation’ would resolve itself.

All I can really say, about the 300 minutes I ended up volunteering for Caine’s Arcade, is that I observed one distinct difference between the Hen and his classmates on this particular occasion. The difference had nothing to do with intellect or skill; the difference was simply a willingness to go for it. A willingness to cut a terrible-looking hole and either live with it or pick out another piece of cardboard and try again. A willingness to make a fulcrum and put a piece of cardboard across it and call it a catapult**.

‘Just make a mark and see where it takes you,’ the sage words from Peter Reynolds’ ‘The Dot’ popped into my head. Almost as if I’d read the book eighteen times.

That night, the Gort handed me his 7th grade algebra homework. ‘I know the answer, but I don’t know how to explain it.’ I resisted the urge to say ‘how is that even a problem’ and devoted my dwindling energy to staring at the words on the page. It was a substantial boost to my ego when I realized I could still kill 7th grade math.


*Yes, I just Googled ‘what is fear of creating’ and found only ‘fear of making mistakes’ which is basically the same thing.

**I experienced the tiniest twinge of redemption when I, fortysomething, non-science school volunteer, was able to help fulcrum-girl figure out why her catapult was not working as well as she needed it to work.








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