The MC called the names of all the fourth grade winners: eighteen third place, sixteen second place, fourteen first place, and one Ultimate Young Scientist of the Fair, winner of a $100 gift card and certificate. We watched kids run down the steps to the stage to get their awards. Melisandra waited. She hoped. She wasn’t called.
We made our long walk from the arena through the busy intersection to the parking lot, carrying the card table and the folding chair and all the papers and bags. The wind grabbed the table like a sail and threaten to take the table from my hands. Melisandra grunted under the weight of the chair. It was a cumbersome load for a nine-year-old, but she still kept up with me.
Once we were safe inside the Tahoe, Melisandra cried. I listened and waited to say something. I thought she did a wonderful job on her project, and I’m not just saying that because I’m the mom. Still, it didn’t matter what Mom thought at that moment. She didn’t win. And not winning sucks.
I drove us home in her silence. I couldn’t fix this. I couldn’t help her. And that sucks, too.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I said.
“I’m reading now.”
I stared at the road, remembering my own days at award ceremonies—four years of high school speech tournaments that always ended in waiting for an MC to call my name. Sometimes I didn’t win and that made the bus ride home a long one.
I tried high school sports, too. Mainly volleyball. I have wanted to be an athlete all my life but I don’t have the body or instincts for it. I wish I had that edge some people have when their competitive zeal zeroes their focus, heightening their skills like a superpower. But I don’t. When my version of competitive genes kick in, they turn me to mush. I get more nervous. More flustered. My skills fall short.
Knowing all that, I didn’t expect to worry about losing (or winning) when I started playing in a co-ed volleyball league. I expected to enjoy the chance to exercise and meet other adults. But watching the numbers tick in the other team’s favor messes with perspective. It makes the serve more important or missing a back row dig even worse. I could say whatever I want about the game being “just for fun” but that’s not true. We all like to win. Winning matters.
It occurred to me that this event was Melisandra’s first competition, her first awards ceremony. She wanted to participate in the science fair because she wanted to do something fun—study electromagnets—with the friend who partnered with her for the project. She knew her project would be judged, but she didn’t know what it would feel like to be evaluated and not get an award.
She was so quiet on the way home, I started to cry myself. I worried how this devastating blow might cause her to not want to do the science fair ever again. Maybe she wouldn’t want to take any more risks. She’d refuse to try out for a play or a swim team. Maybe she wouldn’t let me enroll her in that chess tournament. She’d prefer being afraid and being safe instead of putting her talents out to the world.
I parked in front of our house and shut off the engine. In a quiet voice, she said, “Do we have time for a playdate?”
I said, “Maybe. We should do something to cheer you up.”
“I know what you can do to cheer me up.”
“Really? What?” I peeked around the headrest of my seat to see her face. She was smiling. Clearly more resilient than I thought.
“You could take me to get ice cream. Or … we could go get a puppy.”
I laughed. I was relieved to see her brighten with her joke. She knew she wasn’t going to get a puppy. But she knew I was a sucker for the Dairy Queen when an occasion presented itself.
So we called the neighbors and made a party out of Dilly Bars and Blizzards.
Inspired by the letter W in the A to Z Challenge.
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