There’s a scene in the 1989 film, Parenthood, where the three-year-old son of Steve Martin’s character puts a bucket on his head and butts it into the wall, repeatedly. Watching this tableau with barely disguised contempt is the kid’s uncle (played by Rick Moranis), who is also father to a precocious three-year-old daughter who can recite the periodic table of elements on command.
I don’t remember which child it was, or where we were exactly, but I vividly recall the alarm I felt when one of my own children donned a bucket and rammed it into his brother. Because when my younger, aspirational self imagined her future offspring, she pictured them as periodic-table types of offspring, not bucket-head types.
Yet, bucket heads I got.
I tried to spark their curiosity with Lego kits and slime recipes and subscriptions to National Geographic. I got them library cards. I suggested science camps. They shrugged and said they wanted to spend their summers “relaxing.”
“I don’t get it,” I complained. “You’re supposed to be using your free time pursuing knowledge. Now is the time to learn! Your developing brains are like sponges! This is the time to chase life’s big questions!”
“Oh, hey, I do have a question,” said one.
“Are you going to go grocery shopping this week? Because we’re, like, out of everything.”
Their apathy left me flummoxed.
“I don’t understand. Do you know how smart your father is? He was taking college courses and winning science fairs at your age! You think I married him for his looks? No! I married him because he’s smart, and I knew we’d probably have smart kids. What happened to you people?”
“Yeah, sounds like Dad was kind of a nerd. Let’s talk about YOU. What did YOU do over YOUR summers?”
“I uh, well, there was this bucket … oh, forget it. Who wants to watch Bob’s Burgers?”
Their impassivity quashed my hope; however, it was reignited when, at the beginning of the school year, Danny brought home a flyer for a club called “Odyssey of the Mind.”
I had a vague notion about the program, and after a bit of research, I decided the concept sounded promising: Odyssey of the Mind entails creative problem solving which develops skills in young people to help them thrive in our technical world. Daniel, I thought, would benefit from skills that would help him thrive in a technical world. He’s the only one, aside from myself, who doesn’t know how to turn on the television. (In our defense, multiple remotes and a long, confusing list of video inputs hinder our efforts.)
I dragged a suspicious Daniel to an informational meeting where we listened to soaring testimonies from parents and students who had, in years past, participated in Odyssey of the Mind. Daniel went from skeptical to intrigued, and my stupid, hopeful self thought, this is it! He’s going to do this, and SCIENCE! And he will win the Nobel Prize for ALL OF THE SCIENCE!
Blind optimism kept me from seeing what came next.
Odyssey of the Mind is run by parents, “coaches,” who host team meetings in their own homes. And our school district’s Odyssey of the Mind program suffers from a dearth of coaches.
It happened while watching a slideshow of happy children doing creative things. While the woman who runs the program was yammering on, I became aware of an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was that same feeling you get when an old friend contacts you out of the blue and says she was thinking of you, was wondering how you are, and asks what you’ve been up to. And you’re just so flattered by the attention, you naturally respond. And the two of you write back and forth, catching each other up on your lives, sharing amusing anecdotes about your children (And then, it was just sooo funny, he put a BUCKET on his head …) when things take a subtle turn. Your long-lost friend wants to tell you about the awesome new product she’s selling, and you listen quietly, feeling confused, then betrayed, then sad. You get that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach combined with a traitorous desire to purchase moisturizer that promises to make you look five years younger.
That’s how I felt when it became clear that my kid wasn’t going to get on an Odyssey of the Mind team unless someone in the room stepped up as a coach. The informational meeting had turned into an aggressive plea for recruits, but despite their hard sell, no one was biting. I looked around at the other parents, who all wore the uncomfortable, resolute look of a person ready to say no.
I scanned the room, desperately seeking just one unwitting fool willing to host a team of eager, unruly, funky-smelling prepubescent boys in their own home on a weekly basis. And give them a snack. And organize all the materials and ideas and prepare them adequately for a competition in front of real-live judges. I needed just one enthusiastic, overachieving parent - the kind of parent who raises periodic-table type children. Because I had witnessed a spark in Danny’s eye, a curious spark I wanted to nurture and grow and send off into the world.
Or rather, I wanted someone else to nurture and grow it.
Just. One. Parent.
While I scanned the room, the evening took a second unexpected turn.
“Mom,” said Daniel, “this is something that we could do together.”
Oh, my stupid, stupid, weak, lovesick heart.
Five minutes later, I was the unwitting fool surrounded by parents expressing their effusive thanks while informing me of their child’s food allergies. And a couple of weeks later, I was the hapless leader doing her best to manage an enthusiastic group of eleven-year-old boys tasked with building a working car. A working vehicle that one of them must drive. A car that … runs. With wheels and stuff.
This is all easier said than done. Our first meetings have been exercises in futility. One child, clearly a periodic-table type, dismisses everyone else’s ideas as he draws a detailed picture of a vehicle that looks a lot like the Delorean in Back to the Future. One kid keeps venturing into my basement; I have no idea what he hopes to find there. One kid typed, “How do I get to the dark web?” into Google, and I think he may have helped crowdfund the assassination of a foreign leader. And Daniel – Daniel wants to take apart our lawnmower to get to the engine.
We have no idea what we’re doing.
But I’m learning, and I think things will get better. And there is a shiny, silver lining that feeds my hope and gives me the courage keep going. On days when we have our meetings, I feel like a good mom, and I think Daniel is happy. I’m pretty sure he’s happy, anyway.
It’s difficult to see his expression with that bucket on his head.