It's that time of the year when high school gymnasiums are thronged with excited young people. Palms sweat, mouths go dry and a visible fog of teenaged angst and anticipation hangs in the air.
Yes, it's the science fair season once again.
I was in eighth grade when my buddy Dale and I decided to participate in our school's science fair. We were motivated by our shared thirst for scientific knowledge, but Mrs. Heemeyer was also a big factor.
Mrs. Heemeyer was our junior high science teacher. She was young and vivacious and made the pursuit of scientific knowledge seem fun. She was also incredibly attractive, no mean feat for a science teacher.
Many of the boys in eighth grade sat through Mrs. Heemeyer's science class pretending to pay attention while thinking, "With a science teacher like this, who needs a Bunsen burner?"
So we had lots of motivation for participating in the science fair. The only thing we lacked was the slightest notion about what sort of sciencey thing we wanted to explore.
After extensive brainstorming, we came up with an excellent idea. The main thing it had going for it was a play on words.
Dale and I decided to make onionskin paper. Not paper that's as thin as onion skin; paper that was made from actual onion skins.
The first part of our project involved acquiring a workable quantity of onion skins. The onions at our homes were summarily stripped of their translucent brown wrappings, providing us with a pitifully small amount of raw materials.
Desperate, we went to our local grocery store and asked the proprietress if we could harvest their onion skins. We were granted permission but watched closely as we skinned a hundredweight of onions. No telling what sort of mischief a pair of goofy eighth-graders might instigate!
Next step was to use our onion skins to manufacture onion skin paper. We informed Mrs. Heemeyer that we required a miniature paper mill, complete with the requisite pulping equipment and chemicals and kiln. Mrs. Heemeyer regretfully informed us that the junior high science department - the entire school, for that matter - lacked the budget for such equipment.
As one might imagine, we were deeply disappointed. But at least we had gotten to talk to Mrs. Heemeyer.
We were left with no choice but to invent a way to manufacture the paper ourselves. After several tries and failures, we settled on a formula of chopped onion skins mixed with flour and water. This concoction was then mashed flat and baked. The result was a brownish wafer-like substance.
Rigorous scientific testing was then conducted on our creation. We checked it for such things as its moisture resistance (it turned to mush in water) and fire resistance (it burned like gunpowder). In essence, we took a worthless byproduct and, through hard work and Yankee ingenuity, created a totally worthless end product.
Much of our research had been supervised by Mrs. Heemeyer, so we felt it was well worth the effort.
Once the data was compiled and graphed, all that remained was to construct the standard tri-fold science fair display board. Most kids made their displays from cardboard. We opted to make ours of inch plywood, which we reckoned rendered it too heavy to steal. It also nearly gave us hernias as we carried it into the gym.
You could feel the tension as the science fair judges roamed the gym. They stopped at our display and we explained how we had invented a product and, using strict scientific methodology, proved it to be totally useless.
At last Mrs. Heemeyer got up on stage to announce the results of the judging. Dale and I hoped - dare we even say it aloud? - that we would snag honorable mention.
But no! Mrs. Heemeyer proclaimed someone else the winner of honorable mention! Bitterly disappointed and deeply embarrassed, Dale and I began to slink from the gym.
We lingered at the doorway as Mrs. Heemeyer rattled off the third, second and first place winners. They were all kids who had long ago been labeled "smart," so there were no real surprises. Dale and I agreed that we should each immediately find a remote cave and become hermits.
But as we were making good our getaway, our names reverberated throughout the gym! Dale and I had been named winners of the grand prize!
It was obviously incredibly embarrassing to for us to go up on stage and accept the award in front of the entire junior high. But it was definitely worth it, because we also got to shake hands with a beaming Mrs. Heemeyer.