Friday, May 27, 2011

Tiger Mom vs. Third-Grader: Part II, Great American SpellCheck

This morning, Nico participated in Roxboro Elementary School's first Great American SpellCheck competition and was eliminated in the second round. (Did I imagine a gasp when it happened? Maybe it came from me.)

It was a somewhat shocking result, as Nico misspelled the word "badly" ("baddly"). This, from a kid who breezes through weekly spelling words like "perspicacious" and "paradigmatic". I was stunned that he was eliminated so quickly and saw that he was too. He walked off the stage dazed. When the students eliminated in his round rejoined their classmates in the audience, Nico sat off to the side, away from all his friends.

I went over to him and suggested we go out to the hallway. He was fighting back tears. "I spelled it wrong on purpose," he said, bitterly. "I didn't want to be there in the first place." Nico had scored 50 out of 50 on the written exam to qualify for the oral spelling competition, but had mixed feelings about the whole thing. "I don't want to be on stage," he had said when he learned he had qualified.

Spelling bees are a source of pride in this family. Both Vic and I were grade school spelling champs and to this day, I silently judge people who can't spell well (and don't get me started on people who can't use apostrophes properly). Still, I didn't want to put too much pressure on Nico for his first spelling bee. I debated even going to the competition today, but am glad I did. I sat with some friends and we cheered for all of the spellers.

There is so much drama at these things! For first-, second- and third-graders, these competitions must be incredibly nerve-wracking. As I spoke to other parents, we all admitted that we were nervous ourselves as we watched our children take their turns at the mic. The rhythm of a spelling bee is mesmerizing - we hold our breath as the students recite the letters, we listen for the bell, we sigh with relief (or gasp in sympathy), we clap, repeat. It was heartbreaking to watch the young spellers as they were eliminated, one by one. Some of them stumbled, crestfallen, into their parents' open arms; some only needed a quick hug and then raced back to sit with their friends, others needed to be embraced for the rest of the competition.

Nico displayed a disturbing, but familiar mix of emotions after he was ousted from the contest. Like me, he's emotional and excitable, but he is embarrassed to show it. Like Vic, he is brooding and intensely competitive. When we finally reentered the auditorium after a few minutes hugging in the hallway, I heard Nico whisper, "Yes!" when his friends were also eliminated. "Don't you want to root for your friends?" I asked him. "No. I don't want anyone to win," he replied.

Admittedly, I was annoyed that Nico was booted out of the competition so early. I tried not to show it, although, for a microsecond, I related to my own mother's feelings of disappointment in me. I remembered the piano recital where I flubbed a note and heard her in the audience clucking her tongue. That memory has stayed with me and I don't want Nico to know that feeling. I hugged and kissed him for a long time. "I'm a horrible speller," he said. "No, you're not," I told him. "You have weekly spelling words much harder than the one you missed today. You're a fantastic speller all day every day, just not for a few seconds today. It's OK." I hugged him again.

I wasn't at all a Tiger Mom today and it was fine. F.I.N.E.

Tiger Mom vs. Third-Grader: Part I, Invention Convention

Last night, Nico won the 3rd-4th-5th grade division for his school's Invention Convention with his "Boat Buddy Bath Thermometer". He built a sailboat out of balsa wood and inserted an 8-second thermometer through it so that the whole contraption would result in a floating device that could measure bath water temperature. He came up with this idea based on his daily problem of jumping into a shower that is too cold. Although his invention doesn't really work for showers, it's pretty good for baths.
I helped Nico a lot with his project, taking him to Target and JoAnn Fabric for supplies, assisting him in building his sailboat and working with him to put his display together. His poster included a bar graph of our family members' preferred bath temperatures (mine was the highest - duh, I'm Asian!). It also included an advertisement: "Upgrade your bath! Ingredients for a perfect bath: soap, bubbles, water, Boat Buddy!"

While there were some amazing inventions on display, the science teacher told us that what put Nico's project over the edge was his research plan. Yesss! I gave my husband a smug look. "See, it's all about the writing, " I explained to Vic.

Then, in re-reading Nico's research report, I saw that my first-born son had crossed out "special thanks/credits to my mom for her help". Originally, when I read over Nico's report, I was flattered that he mentioned me at all. But at Science Night, when I saw he crossed out the words in heavy, angry pencil marks, I was surprised. Nico explained, loud enough for everyone to hear, "I crossed that out after you made me mad! You said you weren't going to help anymore and that it was my project and I had to do it all by..." I cut him off, worried he was going to tell the world all about the ups and downs of our collaboration (i.e., my mood swings throughout the process). I was nervous he would describe how, in a fit of frustration and anger,  I angrily scattered all of our craft supplies across the dining room.

It was a terrible Tiger Mom moment and I knew it even as I flung pieces of balsa wood in the air. It reminded me of the time in second grade when my mom got upset at me for sulking through a weekday afternoon piano practice. I had been sitting at the piano, shoulders slumped, sighing and dawdling, listening to my friends Big Wheel down the sidewalk. Suddenly, my mom swooped in, swept up my piano books and threw them in the trash. The kitchen trash. I fished them out of a snarl of apple peels and carrot shavings, cleaned them up, taped the torn pages and sat down to practice. It was a day I will never forget and now I wonder if Nico will have a similar experience seared in his memory.

So far, Nico does not seem too scarred. He was elated when he was announced as one of the two school winners. When we got home, he bounced into the house and called my dad, who was simply delighted. Nico put him on speakerphone and it was heartwarming to hear their conversation. My dad told Nico he had a good feeling about his invention because it was a great idea and that he had worked hard on it. He asked Nico if he was happy and if he wanted to be a scientist some day. Nico said, "I think so!"

Next up: Great American SpellCheck