Competitions Large and Small

Every year, Purdue University hosts the National Rube Goldberg Competition. For those of you who do not subscribe to the geek way of life, Rube Goldberg was a cartoonist. He is known for his comical illustrations of elaborate contraptions; each has a goal to complete a very simple task. Once the task is announced, college and university engineering departments from all corners of the United States put their brains to work. Only the best will compete in the competition at Purdue.

Building one of these, using only found objects, requires quite a lot of mathematical precision. Something that is not my strong suit, I will admit. But for my son, this is the Super Bowl of Science and Technology. Every year for the past three years or so, we plan our trek to Indiana to the armory hangar where these competitions are held. For two years running, Purdue U has broken the World’s Record for the most steps successfully completed without an assist. The rules state a minimum of 20 something steps, but all of the competitors go above and beyond. Purdue set its records with well over 200 steps, all of which needed to be perfectly executed.

To me, it was interesting at first, a novelty really. A ball drops onto a small plank, which flips up and releases a boot, which in turn will kick something to trigger something else…. It’s like watching an elaborate domino run. The chain reaction of one thing to the next and so on down the line until it reaches its goal was amusing. At least for the first couple of times. The end result may be to pop a balloon, or water a plant or turn on a light switch.

“Kinda neat.” Was my first reaction.

Not to these guys and definitely not to my son, who watches the competition like it’s a pro baseball game. The edge of his seat action is a must year after year. He has taught me to appreciate it. Still, for me it is really the gratification of sharing this with him. After the competition ends, he approaches each team to get a better view of their contraptions. It continues to amaze me when I see the reaction other people have towards him. The first year, a team gave him a piece of their contraption as a memento. Another year a student from Penn. State literally gave him the shirt off his back, (a team shirt which he wears as pajamas to this day). Some students feel compelled to ask to have their picture taken with him.

Why is that?

All children are beautiful. Any would capture the heart of a college team getting its fifteen minutes in the spotlight. To be asked for your autograph by a star-struck child must certainly stoke one’s ego. Personally, I think it is the rare beauty of a child of dwarfism. Children stay young for only so long, so it is not often one sees a child with any form of dwarfism. But they are some of the most beautiful children I have ever seen. Whatever the reason, it happens and it has made him brave.

One year, we’d arrived early to watch them set up, (which by the way takes hours and hours to do). Then something else caught my son’s eye. It was the awards table. The only piece of elegance in the concrete and metal building. The awards gleamed under the lights. He was immediately drawn to them. My child is pretty gutsy with some things, but at that moment he was downright mischievous. He had shown great respect to the bundles of wires strewn on the floor, and to the space each team needed. However, when he saw that table he saw a boundary he needed to cross. Never caring who is watching, he walked under the roped perimeter to get a close up view. His mouth was gaping, if I didn’t know better, I’d say he was actually drooling. I was adjusting my bags and had not noticed what he’d done until he was already beside the table — reaching for first place.

“Get away from there right now, mister!” I said in my firmest tone. He turned to me, and with a grin, put one finger in the air.
“Don’t even think about it! You come out of there this instant!” I scolded. He knows me so well; he knew I thought it was cute. (Reaching for my camera while giving ultimatums, probably gave it away.)

I started the parental count-down:
“One…”
His finger pointed toward the largest trophy.
“Two..”
I left my camera in its bag. This was starting to get serious. They looked very expensive and he was defying my authority. I looked around to see if anyone had seen him yet. I looked back at him very sternly.
“Three’s trouble mister!”
He continued to reach for it! I watched as his little finger moved closer to the perfectly polished trophy. It has always been a rule of mine never to use my size against him, so going in there to drag him out was not an option. I kept my tone low and commanding.
“Don’t you touch that…don’t even think about it.”
But still, he moved closer. I knew he could see his reflection in the shine.
“Don’t do it.. come out of there this instant.”
Still he moved closer, dazed by its brilliance.
I’d never gotten to three…what was I even going to do at three, anyway?
“Don’t do it, I’m gonna say it…”
He stopped, frozen finger in air. I breathed a short-lived sigh of relief. For when he did so, he turned to me…and bit his lip but never lowered his finger. It was just too great of a temptation to pass up, so movement commenced.
“That’s it…” I said. His eyes never left mine. ” Three.”
At that moment the tip of his finger met the brass.

A split second later, he was hurrying his way back to me. There, he resumed his obedient position beside me. He even bent down to pick up something I’d dropped and put it in the bag. Then, he just stood there, looking up at me. No winning grin–no sorry one either. I stood my ground, hands on hips, stoned-faced, and staring back.

(This, if done properly and for specific amount of time, can be a very effective parenting tool.)  He melted a bit and was looking sheepish standing there. I was sure that he felt truly sad about defying me. Not remorseful–just sad.

So now what. I had said “three”! I had promised trouble. I raised one eyebrow, just for the sake of suspense. He put his arms at his side, more nervous now than before. Then I spoke those words that only mothers think to speak when put in this position.
“We will talk about THIS later.”
For some reason, waiting until later it is just as effective as any other punishment, if not more. It also gives me time to come up with a rational punishment. Not an impossible to follow through with punishment like, “that’s it we’re leaving”. I thought to myself that I’d better start thinking of some stand by punishments, if this kind of thing was going to start. Kind of a weird milestone, when your child first questions your authority. As we walked away from the table, I grinned to myself.

Can’t really blame him for wanting first place.