short excerpts...other writings...upon occasion or as prompted...
The tiger in the water? A representation of my life -- spirit and environment!


Thursday, September 23, 2010

If the Road Comes to an End, Find a Path through the Woods

I grew up barefoot and suntanned on a farm in rural Maine, the oldest of eight children. My father was a shoe cutter in the winter and a farmer in the summer. All the children I knew in the Maine farmlands grew up barefoot, suntanned, self-confident in the country air, and a little insecure when confronted with city bustle and impersonality.

We were bussed to the city for school. Everything in the city seemed better than on the farm. Our classmates had nicer clothes, shinier shoes, and spiffier haircuts. Life seemed to move faster, and you were supposed to have toys, gadgets, candy, money, fancy book bags, and all sorts of things. The differing levels of affluence were painfully obvious to all of us.

So, when it came time for the science fair, I did not consider the possibility of entering. I loved science, but the cost of supplies was not within my reach as a single exhibitor. I could not partner with one of the city kids because I could not provide my fair share. I could not partner with one of the farm kids because even together we would have no money.

My science teacher would not listen to my explanation. He personally signed up my girlfriend and me and challenged us to figure out a project that we could do with what we had.

"You don't have to buy science," he told us. "Science is all around you."

We picked the topic of light and color, then scoured our houses and barns for anything useful: some leftover pieces of glass from a broken barn window, oddly shaped pieces of wood from the woodpile, and some scraps of wool from my mother's sewing basket. We realized that we had the makings of a display. Perhaps our science teacher was right. Perhaps we could, indeed, make something from nothing.

First, we cut the broken window glass into triangles for homemade prisms. We found, though, that the light diffracted into a multitude of directions so that we could not get the clean spectrum that we wanted. After thinking a bit, we conceived the idea of gluing black construction paper remnants from art class to the flat slides of the prisms to absorb the ambient diffusion. It worked. We made a couple dozen homemade prisms to hand out.

Next, we built a stand by hammering and sawing the pieces of wood to the approximate size and shape we needed, and we hung the scraps of wood on the stand to make a lightproof enclosure. It teetered and sometimes tottered, but it worked.

Using scrap materials was fun. It required creativity and really helped us to understand principles of light and color better than learning about them in a book. We were satisfied that we had put together a credible project that cost us absolutely nothing.

On the night of the science fair, we carefully packed our multi-piece exhibit into some old cartons we found in the barn, lining them with newspaper to keep everything clean. Arriving at the school gym, which had been set up with dozens of conference display tables, we saw the projects our classmates had assembled from beautiful, expensive science kits. Suddenly, our window-glass, black-paper prisms and our rickety stand seemed shoddy. We could not even begin to compete with the blood circulation machines and the fancy optic displays of our classmates. Without a word to each other, we both turned around at the same time and walked out of the gym. We would have gone home, but there stood our science teacher with a stern look on his face. He marched us back into the building.

We spent the rest of the evening in embarrassment, watching the judges look at the impressive, professional-appearing exhibits of the other students. We crossed our fingers that none of our classmates would walk by and poke fun at our display. They did not. They were too busy showing their displays to the judges and parents. Although we did not understand how our homemade apparati could possibly interest the judges, we were enthusiastic about our project itself and appreciative that they came back several times to ask us ever more interesting and challenging questions. We were especially appreciative that they did not laugh at our homemade displays but thanked us and pocketed the prisms that we handed out as if they were just as good as those pretty, store-bought, sparkling ones.

As a seventh-grader, I was surprised and puzzled when we won first place although our science teacher was not. As an adult, I have found many applications of the lesson I learned at the science fair. It is not what you have that counts but what you do with it. Or, when the road comes to an end, find a path through the woods.


Excerpted and adapted from a collection of vignettes, copyright 2003.

Double-posted on Mahlou Musings and Clan of Mahlou.


  1. Hi Elizabeth .. the moral of the tale - it's what you do with what's around you .. so wise .. and such a lovely read. We can all do so much .. just sometimes we need a little encouragement and push... thanks -

    do hope all is well and settling down .. thinking of you .. Hilary

  2. "It's not what you have, but what you do with it!" AMEN!!

    Blessings and prayers,

  3. That teacher sounds like a gem. There are some teachers who should not be, but he doesn't fit into that category...thank God!

  4. Elizabeth:
    This is a good lesson to learn in life. At one time or another,we all have been envious of what our neighbor had. Then we find out what he or she didn't have.

  5. Hilary, thank you for asking. Yes, things are settling down now.

    Blessings to you, too, Andrea.

    Deborah Ann, he was indeed a gem. I realize that more as an adult than I did as a child although even as a child I knew I was learning a lot from him.

    Quietspirit, I have found that any time we are envious, all we have to do is scratch the surface, and we will find some difficulty or sorrow. No one really escapes that even if it seems so to others.


About Me

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I am the mother of 4 birth children (plus 3 others who lived with us) and grandmother of 2, all of them exceptional children. Married for 42 years, I grew up in Maine, live in California, and work in many places in education, linguistics, and program management. In my spare time, I rescue and tame feral cats and have the scars to prove it. A long-time ignorantly blissful atheist converted by a theophanic experience to Catholicism, I am now a joyful catechist. Oh, I also authored a dozen books, two under my pen name of Mahlou (Blest Atheist and A Believer-in-Waiting's First Encounters with God).

My Other Blogs

100th Lamb. This is my main blog, the one I keep most updated.

The Clan of Mahlou
. This is background information about various members of the extended Mahlou family. It is very much a work still in progress. Soon I will begin posting excerpts from a new book I am writing, Raising God's Rainbow Makers.

Modern Mysticism. This blog discusses the mystical in our pragmatic, practical, realistic, and rational 21st century world and is to those who spend some or much of their time in an irrational/mystical relationship with God. If such things do not strain your credulity, you are welcome to follow the blog and participate in it.

Recommended Reading List

Because I am blog inept, I don't quite know how to get a reading list to stay at the end of the page and not disappear from sight. Therefore, I entered it as my first post. I suppose that is not all that bad because readers started commenting about the books, even suggesting additional readings. So, you can participate with others in my reading list by clicking here.
I do post additional books as I read them and find them to be meaningful to me, and therefore, hopefully, meaningful to you. One advantage of all the plane traveling I do is that I acquire reading time that I might not otherwise take.