My Big Fat Greek Project (and other school assignments that taught me the meaning of life)

By Samantha Stainburn — May 01, 2003 20 min read
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I like to think I’m educated. But the contents of this box told otherwise.

My father and mother recently moved back to the United States after 35 years of working abroad as a United Nations economist and an English teacher, respectively. While it’s certainly much more convenient to have them living in my time zone, the real cause for excitement was that their return precipitated the delivery of 150 boxes from Bolliger Storage in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. The boxes contained photographs, letters, and school projects that my brother and I had worked on—stuff with sentimental value that our parents shipped away intermittently as it piled up. Other families always had attics, but opening these boxes would be my first chance since childhood to rummage through the artifacts of my past.

After I arrived at my parents’ new house outside Philadelphia to claim the loot, my mother led me down to the basement, where she picked a path through a forest of towering boxes. My stuff was contained in a stump five boxes tall. Four were filled with old ballet shoes, drawings, comic books, play scripts, yearbooks, and notes passed in class. Only one, I was surprised to find, contained school assignments that I’d deemed important enough to save for posterity.

I spent 2,520 days at school during the 14 year period that began when I entered prekindergarten in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1975 and ended when I walked across a gymnasium in Kingston, Pennsylvania, to receive my high school diploma in 1989. You’d think I’d have more than one box to show for it.

I grew even more agitated as I started pulling out its contents: A research paper on Java Man. A chunk of marble from a class trip to a marble-polishing factory. A photocopy of the 18 lines of the general prologue to The Canterbury Tales that I’d memorized in 12th grade.

I like to think I’m educated. But the contents of this box, projects that represented a brief exposure to an astonishing variety of topics ranging from the ancient Greeks to Moby Dick, told otherwise. They indicated a body of knowledge so haphazard as to be of little use besides preparing the bearer to carry on a conversation with the drunkengeologist on the next bar stool.

If this were true, it would be a tragedy. You’d be hard-pressed to find a kid more open to all that school could give her—or more determined to push other kids out of the way to get it—than my younger self. As the years passed, I won accolades that told me I was on the right path to understanding: good grades, writing awards, the assurance of my senior class that I was Most Likely to Succeed.

No, I couldn’t believe that the academic legacy of such a person could be so devoid of meaning. The projects I saved must signify some deeper acquisition of knowledge. I resolved to examine them with a more critical eye. I would, as they say, think outside the box.

Here is what I discovered.

The Parthenon, Circa 1981

Samantha Stainburn’s 6th grade Parthenon.
—Photograph by David Kidd

My model of the Parthenon is a relic from a confusing time—1981, when I lived in the United States for the first time. I was 10 and bewildered by the many odd customs I encountered in Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. As an escapee from British-style education, where hand-numbing note-taking and rote memorization were the order of the day, I made the mistake of thinking projects were just another kind of fun that American kids had, along with eating at McDonald’s and playing tetherball.

My brother showed me how wrong I was.

Alex’s teacher informed his 3rd grade class that it would be hosting a “state fair” for the school and that each student would create a booth for the state of his or her choice. We hadn’t been in America long, so he picked the only name he recognized from the list: “India,” or as his teacher pronounced it, “Indiana.” All the kids made “stuffed states"—two pieces of paper cut into the appropriate shape, stapled together, and stuffed with newspaper—which they hung above their booths. For his stall, Alex drew a picture of the state bird and created a board game featuring famous Hoosier landmarks. Meanwhile, his classmates’ parents were busy phoning relatives in the states their kids had chosen and placing orders for chambers of commerce pamphlets and pro-football jerseys. On the big day, the line of people at the Texas booth, where a girl was smugly dishing out barbecue flown in that morning from Houston, snaked around the classroom. With no giveaways to draw visitors, Alex spent a lonely afternoon watching his stuffed state turn gently in the breeze.

My brother’s humiliation demonstrated what was at stake in this game, so I was prepared when my 6th grade teacher announced that the grade for our ancient civilizations unit would be based in part on models of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian buildings that we would construct. The design and materials were up to us, and they were due in a month.

I knew that my classmates had access to closets full of shoeboxes they’d been hoarding for years and that, upon hearing of the project, their parents would immediately fan out to the local drugstores and buy up every pipe cleaner. But I was not intimidated. You see, my synapses had been firing since the day we’d looked at illustrations of the Parthenon, the temple to the Greek goddess Athena constructed by Pericles and completed in 432 B.C., and I’d idly noticed that its Doric columns looked like rolls of corrugated cardboard.

With growing excitement, I realized that this lucky insight was my ticket to the top of the classroom hierarchy. With corrugated cardboard for columns, a shoebox top for a base, and some white paint and Plasticine, I, too, could build a Parthenon. Over the next few days, I gathered my supplies. Then I took a well-earned break.

Around 7 p.m. the night before the project was due, I spread my materials across the kitchen table and got to work. I rolled my corrugated cardboard into tubes, taped them, and cut them into equal lengths.

They say that Rome was not built in a day, and I’m here to tell you that, sadly, this also tends to be the case with 1-to-288 scale models of other ancient sites. By 10 p.m., I was beside myself with frustration. The columns kept falling over, and they wouldn’t support the roof. The roof had problems of its own— namely, the fact that it looked like a dented loaf of bread.

My ideas had exceeded my skills, and the hour had arrived to ask a parent for help.

My father, being a model-train enthusiast, would seem the natural choice. Early on, however, my brother and I had learned that working with him was more like appearing in an absurdist play.

“What does ‘epiphany’ mean?”

“I don’t know.”

“Of course you do!”

My mother, on the other hand, a teacher, was professionally trained to be helpful. Through tears, I intimated to her that I might need some assistance in stabilizing the rear columns of my structure. Unfortunately, my timing was off. “You had a whole month to work on this,” she snapped in exasperation. It should be noted that this was a period in our lives that we now refer to as “the years that sucked.” While three of us were living in Arlington, my dad was working in East Africa for several months at a stretch, doing something that he described as “providing large sums of money for this family by putting my life on the line every day.” While he was away, my brother and I complained bitterly when asked to load the dishwasher. During his short visits home, we were model citizens, even volunteering for yardwork.

It turned out there was something more pathetic than imperfection. It was called cheating.

My mother indicated me flouncing around in my long flannel nightgown and said to my father, “This is what I have to deal with when you’re not here.” Then she went to bed.

My dad pulled up a chair beside me and started counting the columns splayed on the shoebox top.

“What are you doing?” I cried.

“You might need some more columns,” he said.

I couldn’t bear to hear such editorializing on my disorganization. “This is useless!” I announced, and fled upstairs to my room, where I flung myself onto the bed and fell instantly into the deep sleep of a person desperate to avoid reality.

I don’t have kids myself, so I don’t fully understand why my father’s response to this outburst wasn’t “Suit yourself,” followed by the scraping of his chair on the kitchen floor as he rose from the table and abandoned my project to poke around in the refrigerator for a late-night snack.

Instead, he repositioned the columns so they were spaced equally around the rectangular base. He remade the roof by scoring the cardboard down the middle and bending it to a perfect 135-degree angle. He stuck the columns to the roof with a combination of glue and Plasticine, and held each one in position for several minutes until the glue had dried. He finished around 3 in the morning.

When I awoke the next day, ribbons of sunlight filtered between the upright columns of the Parthenon, casting a dappled pattern on my dresser, much like light must have fallen into the building before the Turkish army accidentally blew off its roof in 1687.

At school, my model faced some stiff competition. One kid’s engineer father had constructed a Hadrian’s Arch using paint chips. Another’s mother had fired an Egyptian pyramid in her kiln. But all who saw the Parthenon were enthralled by its stark white beauty, not to mention its remarkable sturdiness. With graciousness, I accepted their congratulations and assumed my rightful place at the top of the class.

“I got an A plus!” I boasted to my parents after the marks came in.

They laughed derisively. “You got an A plus? I don’t think so,” my mother said, gesturing toward my father. “I’m quite pleased,” he said. “I haven’t had many A pluses in my career. When I went to school, they didn’t give out grades like A plus very often.”

The more he enthused about “his” grade, the less triumphant I felt. The Parthenon couldn’t be a symbol of my intelligence if it wasn’t really my work.

It turned out there was something more pathetic than imperfection. It was called cheating. In disgust, I shoved the Parthenon to the back of my closet and tried to forget the whole episode. Truthfully, I didn’t have much time to fret. Only a few weeks later I was bending my mind around a new problem: how to transform Saran Wrap, felt, and yet another shoebox into a diorama of a manatee in its natural habitat.

Notes From a Spaceship

Upon his return to Earth, a Russian cosmonaut who lived on the Mir space station with an international crew described what he found to be one of the biggest challenges of spending months in space. Was it the cramped living quarters, the homesickness, the monotonous tasks? No. It was living with one particular American astronaut, an egotistical bastard.

Boy, is it ever true that just one annoying astronaut can kill a flight crew’s buzz. I know because, for three days during 8th grade, I, too, lived in a spaceship. In this scenario, however, the annoying astronaut was me.

Boy, is it ever true that just one annoying astronaut can kill a flight crew’s buzz. I know because, for three days during 8th grade, I, too, lived in a spaceship.

It was 1984, and my family was living in Bandung, Indonesia, a city in central Java perched on the side of a volcano. I attended the local international school, which had only 100 students in grades 1 through 8 and a curriculum concocted by assorted expats who were keen to see as much of the country as they could in the few years they taught there. Accordingly, we students took many “study trips” to the beach and wrote sections for a guidebook some teachers were compiling.

The educational value of the projects designed by Mr. Heron, an Australian who taught 7th and 8th grade math and science, was never in doubt, however. Under his guidance, we stole into the rice paddy behind the school to collect mud, weeds, and little fish for micro-ecosystems we displayed in glass jars. We visited the nearby Bosscha Observatory, where the astronomers took time off from researching dwarf novae to point their scopes toward the heavens for us.

One day, Mr. Heron announced that the entire 8th grade class would barricade itself into a corner of the gym for 72 hours for a project he called “the spaceship.” He explained that, like astronauts, we would be confined to a small space that we’d not be able to leave while we were “in flight.” We would have only the food and belongings we brought with us and would gather data that documented our lives in space. Alas, because the project would last from 8 a.m. Wednesday until 8 a.m. Saturday, we’d still have our regular classes.

Mr. Heron listed our observation options on the board, including “How much food is consumed?” “How much time do we spend on different activities—schoolwork, reading, arguing, etc.?” “How much water is consumed? (Measure water used in showers, toilets, etc.)”

“Who wants to do what?” he called over his shoulder, chalk poised in the air.

“I’ll do anything except dunk a bucket into a toilet,” I announced, envisioning having to do this before it was flushed.

“Sam Stainburn volunteers to measure water consumption in the spaceship,” Mr. Heron said, writing my name next to the job.

“No. That’s the experiment I said I don’t want,” I corrected him.

“Really? Well, it looks like it’s yours now. Unless someone else would like to do it?”

My classmates suddenly became very interested in copying the list into their notebooks.

We lost one crewmember, Brenda, right off the bat. Her parents were missionaries and rightly suspicious of any project that required their daughter to share accommodations with a group of non-church- attending teenagers and a male teacher. But the other six of us packed our bags and moved into our capsule, a 20-by-12 sliver of space with a door to the outside and two attached bathrooms, one of which we converted to a kitchen by plugging in a hot plate. Bookcases and boxes closed us off from the rest of the gym.

At first it was fun. Students in the PE classes on the other side of the barricade shouted hello. We heated up noodles for lunch. Even the water- use experiment didn’t turn out to be so bad. I just had to measure the amount of water emptied from the toilet tank in one flush, then count the times it was flushed and multiply by that number. I also measured the amount of water consumed in a one-minute shower and stood outside the bathroom door with a stopwatch while showers were taken. Finally, I kept track of all the bottles of water we used in cooking, dishwashing, and teeth-brushing and added those to the total.

‘We’re not supposed to leave the spaceship until Saturday morning,’ I protested.

That night, we poked the school telescope out the back door and looked at the stars. “Careful,” I said, pulling in a crewmate who was hanging from the doorframe to breathe in some fresh air. “Technically, we’re not supposed to be outside.”

Thursday was less fun. The gym classes on the other side of the wall ignored us. Making meals was too much work, so we munched on cookies and candy bars instead. And it was getting more than a little tedious to keep track of my crewmates’ bodily functions.

On Friday, our English teacher brought us the worrisome news that, without us on campus, the dynamics of power were shifting, with 7th graders sitting at the 8thgrade lunch table. My best friend, Sophie, complained of a stomachache from eatingtoo much chocolate. And people stopped taking showers, which made my job easier but had other, negative, ramifications.

Some students, whom even now I’m reluctant to name, started lingering by the door, hoping to soak up 30 seconds or so of sunlight when teachers came in for classes. Scandalized, I took to shutting the door swiftly behind visitors after they entered. My police action was met by hostile stares, but the whole point of this project was to stay in confinement, no matter how difficult it was, and I knew they’d thank me later.

Around 10 p.m.—with less than 12 hours to go—an argument broke out between a group of noisy card players and crew members who wanted to read in silence. Mr. Heron intervened. “We’re getting out,” he said unexpectedly.

Five eager faces turned to him with hope. A 6th face—mine—said, “But we’re supposed to stay in the spaceship for three whole days.” Already attacking the wall of boxes, Mr. Heron didn’t seem to hear me.

“Hey—we’re not supposed to leave the spaceship,” I repeated.

My classmates couldn’t scramble through the hole Mr. Heron made fast enough, but I stood firm.

“We’re not supposed to leave the spaceship until Saturday morning,” I protested once more.

One leg out the opening, Mr. Heron turned to me with a weary look. He would have to explain that in life, three-quarters of the way is often good enough. Gallantly trying to put it into terms I would understand, he said: “Sam, even astronauts take space walks.” Then he, too, was gone.

Scowling, I sat down on the box that had, until minutes ago, been part of the impenetrable outer skin of the spaceship. I heard squeaking as the group ran across the floor of the gym, then jangling as Mr. Heron fished a ring of keys out of his pocket and opened the sports- equipment closet.

One might see my ungainly exit from the spaceship as crossing a threshold—from immaturity, where all rules are absolute, to a more adult understanding of the world as a place with wiggle room.

I shook my head in disbelief when I heard the clattering of sticks falling to the floor. The school had recently purchased field hockey equipment, and the craze set off by this acquisition was instantly dampened by strict rules governing the equipment’s use. It seemed that my classmates and teacher were not content to merely abandon the spaceship in mid-flight; their rampage of rule-breaking was extending to (a) removing hockey equipment without the express permission of a PE instructor; and (b) using the sticks on an unauthorized hard surface, which would surely damage them.

I poked my head out the hole to have a look.

“Come on, Sam! We need another person!” Mr. Heron cried.

I hesitated, but not for long.

One might see my ungainly exit from the spaceship as crossing a threshold of another sort—from immaturity, where all rules are absolute, to a more adult understanding of the world as a place with wiggle room.

But I had no time for such thoughts as Sophie threw me a stick and a ball came skittering across the linoleum floor at me with surprising speed. We gulped with laughter at its velocity. We’d only ever played outside on the grass, and on this hard surface, it was almost like the ball had been released from gravity’s drag and was sliding through outer space.

A Calculus T-Shirt

They say Americans will do anything for a T-shirt. I took calculus.

It was neither the time nor the place for such foolishness. I was a senior in high school, and my first-semester grades would have to be good if I wanted to get into my “reach” colleges. If I got wait-listed anywhere, my second-semester grades would also have to be good. I wasn’t good in math.

Nevertheless, I’d completed all the prerequisites for calculus. It seemed mysterious and important, with its weird symbols and everything. I knew what to expect from my literature, French, and art history classes, but calculus was something new. Most of all, I was sick of people telling me what to do: I had ended up at an unpretentious yet intense boarding school in Kingston, Pennsylvania, where all students got into college and advice came from many sides. Our teachers encouraged us to fall in love with learning and take risks in the classroom, but classmates and the college counseling office told us to keep our eyes on the prize and not mess up.

My calculus teacher, Mr. Lull, an Albert Finney look-alike, was a gentle soul from another time. When scheduled speakers for school assemblies fell through, he could be counted on to provide some old-fashioned entertainment, like reciting “Casey at the Bat.” He lived in a house on campus, but he told us that when he got married, he promised his wife that he’d never bring work home. My dorm room was across the street from the main school building, and many nights, while mainlining coffee so I could stay up past midnight, I’d glance out my window and notice that the light in Mr. Lull’s classroom was still on, too.

From the get-go, calculus was difficult for me to understand. The numbers in my book spent a lot of time approaching things, like infinity, but never getting there. “There’s a song that might help you,” Mr. Lull said once when he saw me struggling with problems in class. Standing among our desks, he beganto sing:

Next time you’re found
With your chin on the ground,
There’s a lot to be learned, so look around,
Just what makes that little ol’ ant
Think he’ll move that rubber-tree plant?
Anyone knows an ant can’t
Move a rubber-tree plant.

But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes,
He’s got high, apple-pie-in-the-sky hopes,
So any time you’re getting low,
‘Stead of letting go,
Just remember that ant.
Oops, there goes another rubber-tree plant.

One day in late fall, Mr. Lull announced that we were going to have a competition. In groups of three, we’d face off against each other in a race to finish a set of problems. The fastest team with the most correct answers would win blue T-shirts with a fuzzy, S-shaped integral symbol emblazoned across the front.

My teammates gave me the three easiest problems to work on while they sped through the rest. I was still nervous that I’d mess up, but I worked through my equations slowly and deliberately, like that little ant. I was astonished when I got every answer correct, and my team won the shirts.

My failure to exceed at calculus taught me that failure was bearable. With this knowledge, I felt empowered to do other unadvisable things that struck my fancy, like moving to Canada.

I’d like to say that the competition was a turning point in my calculus career, that it gave me the confidence to take all sorts of things to the limit, but it wasn’t—and it didn’t. It was a fluke. The course got harder, and with only a faint grasp of the fundamentals, I understood less and less. My first-semester grade was a C minus. My teammates wore their T-shirts around school, but I felt like a big fraud, so I kept mine folded in a drawer.

Then I got wait-listed at my first-choice college. I began to wonder if I’d made a terrible mistake. Why didn’t I just wait until college to take calculus, when my gradeswouldn’t matter? The guidance counselor suggested I write a letter to the college, indicating my continued keen interest in going there, and drop it off at her office before my first class the next day. She’d mail it with my midterm grades.

That afternoon, we got our latest calculus tests back. I gasped when I saw my grade:an F. Mr. Lull said, “Come and see me later this week. We’ll go over all this stuff again. I know you can figure it out before the final exam.”

In a daze that night, I wrote my college letter, suspecting it was futile now that my math grade had dropped. The next morning, I couldn’t find it. After a frantic search produced nothing, I started to work the room methodically. I was balancing my desk chair on a six-foot pile of furniture, books, and clothes when Ms. Torbin, the Polish dorm mother, found me. “What are you doing?” she asked. “Since when did you become a crazy person?”

Good question. I wasn’t crazy. I couldn’t even claim my calculus grades were ruining my life, since I’d gotten into 11 other perfectly good colleges. I was just throwing a tantrum because I’d believed that if I took an academic risk, I’d be automatically rewarded. I sheepishly gathered my books and went to French class.

Don’t cry for me. I got into my first-choice college a few weeks later. And my failure to exceed at calculus taught me that failure was bearable. With this knowledge, I felt empowered to do other unadvisable things that struck my fancy, like moving to Canada.

I wore my calculus T-shirt proudly the next year at college, where I was the only person in my drama program who knew what its symbol meant.


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