Well, we (my 14-year-old daughter) and I just got back from Lake Charles, LA, where she competed in the Louisiana State Social Studies Fair. Well, “competed” isn’t exactly the right word. She entered. She did her best. She excelled. And she did not win. But for her to have “competed” would have required that they actually stage a competition, which, sadly, they did not. What they did do bears some explanation – and analysis.
If you’re not familiar with “social studies fairs,” they are like science fairs – but for history, archeology, political science and the like. The rules are similar. The process is virtually identical to the one they use for the science fairs across the country. My daughter took second place at her school’s science fair, then went on to win first prize in her category (Louisiana History) and the Grand Prize for the region’s Middle School competition. This was the first year they’d broken out Louisiana History from the general “History” category (we didn’t know that until Regionals), so it enabled her to compete against a little smaller field, which was nice. Now understand, the Kozak family motto is quisquam dignitas effectus est dignitas super effectus, which, roughly translated means anything worth doing is worth overdoing. Her project covered the Birthplace of Jazz, and the role New Orleans played in music history. She had a well-organized and visually appealing backboard, a well-written presentation, a homemade 2-string banjo she built from a pie tin, my grandfather’s trumpet (he played with Sousa), and a soundtrack that blended her voiceovers with excerpts from historic jazz recordings. Ken Burns would have been proud. She even dressed up like an old blues man – porkpie hat, shades, white shirt, black pants and black tie. She knew her stuff.
Now in any competition, you have to realize that, as good as you may be, there’s always the possibility that somebody else is better. That’s the way the world works. I’ve got no problem with that. And if someone else has a better project, they should win. I respect that, even if it means my kid doesn’t win. Where I have a problem is if they change the rules, and it tips the playing field so that the competition is not fair. And I’m afraid that’s exactly what happened here, at the state level.
As I mentioned, Louisiana History was a new category this year. Nowhere in the rules did they mention that, because it was a new category, and because not all the regions across the state fielded entries in the category, would they change the rules for the category. Thus, after we’d arrived, set up the exhibits, gone through judging, and took our seats in the stands for the announcement of the winners, we were surprised to learn that they were going to treat the Louisiana History category differently. The officials said that “because it’s a new category this year, we’re only going to award a first place trophy.” Um. Wow. Okay. I guess. Kinda bites, but the parents don’t make the rules. Still, I felt that my daughter’s project had a good shot. She presents well – she’s personable, makes eye contact, and knows her subject. But to my surprise, she told me she’d only been visited by one judge. Not three, as at regionals. Or four, as in the competition at her school. Keep in mind, there were TWO ways to compete in each category – as an individual or as a group. All the group projects competed against each other, and all the individual projects competed against each other. That’s how it should be. It’s really not fair to have an individual’s work compete against the work of an entire class of kids, or even three or four kids. Now in every category, that’s exactly the way it worked – First, Second and Third prizes for group projects, and First, Second and Third for individual projects. Except in Louisiana History. There, they gave out ONE First Place trophy to a combined field of both individual and group projects. And the winner was – not my kid.
I’m not going to go into “which project was better.” That’s not the point. Just like in the NFL, “on any given Sunday” any team can beat any other team, regardless of their relative skills or rankings. And it can be for a variety of reasons. If someone beats my daughter on merit, I respect it. Even if they best her and in my eyes their project wasn’t as good, I realize that a lot of this is a judgement call, and I’m necessarily biased. A judge could have a soft-spot for a given topic, see something I didn’t see – lots of factors go into the judging. But what we DIDN’T get to see was the score sheets. We have no way of knowing if, for instance, all the group projects outscored the individual ones, or if my daughter would have won something, had they kept the group and individual projects apart.
It’s not like they only had one or two projects in the category. I know for a fact that they had at least 16 entries in my daughter’s division. Now if a lack of entries was the problem, the smart thing to do would have been to roll them back into the general History category and not break it out this year. That would have been the SMART thing to do. But they didn’t do that. So the both of us (as well as an angry mob of other parents) were left with the feeling that we wuz robbed. And we were. Did I mention that the lone judge high-tailed it out of there before the announcements? And that the event director was rude, defensive, arrogant, and dismissive of the parents that expressed concerns?
I think you can learn a lot from defeat. In many ways, you can learn more from losing than from winning. And as a parent, it’s my job to help my child lean how to handle defeat gracefully (she did – she’s a trooper) and learn from the experience. Had the competition been handled professionally, and she’d been defeated by another individual with a better project (or even one that wasn’t better) it would be relatively easy to deal with it. But because the competition was so hopelessly skewed – and screwed up, the lesson learned for her that day was more along the lines of Life isn’t fair. Learn that now, and avoid the rush later. As lessons go, that’s a good one to learn. But it was the wrong time and place for her to have to learn it.