[Note: if you have landed here because you are searching the internet for pages actually related to “humans,” “cells” or actual science, you have made a terrible mistake. Hit the “back” arrow, and Godspeed].
It started as such things often do, with a casual remark. As I made change for sweaty, hormonally-scented tweens at the Middle School Activity Night, my friend Patty asked “what we were doing for the cell project.” This meant that there was a project, that her daughter had told her about the project a week ago, that my son was never going to tell me about the project, that it was a big deal, that we were not prepared, and that I would never get the whole story no matter what I did. I had been down this road before.
“I guess I don’t know about it, yet” I answered, hoping that Patty would save me as she had before. She, after all, has a child who is tidy of handwriting, aware of assignments, aware that she has a school-issued planner…she has a child who is a daughter.
“They have to make a human cell out of food. That’s really all I know.” This didn’t help. As I dispensed slices of pizza and unfurled dollars fished from tight jeans pockets, I imagined sending in a pepperoni pizza. The crust could be the cell wall, the sauce the endoplasmic reticulum, the cheese and pepperoni could be all that other stuff. All I could remember was mitochondria, “the power house of the cell.” The pizza could be delivered to his third hour science class, and it would be just like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” I could have my own Spicoli.
Mr. Hand: Am I hallucinating here? Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?
Jeff Spicoli: Learning about Cuba, and having some food.
On Facebook, a lively conversation began among the mothers of the putative cell makers. Many had not received the assignment in written form, many found it ridiculous, no one was sure how the finished product was meant to get to school and stay safe until Science class, it was a problem that the teacher (not widely loved) had failed to post it online with other assignments. I sighed in relief. Everyone was in the same boat, and I could just do my best, or, rather Sam could do his best, and we could relax. In the course of the Facebook conversation my sister-in-law posted a link to instructions for making a human cell out of Jell-O. It looked perfect; candies suspended in the gelatin to give a 3-D picture of all of those Golgi Bodies and something-somes. I abandoned Spicoli and the pizza, and told Sam The Plan. We would go out and purchase all of the ingredients on the lengthy list, and then make the thing the night before it was due. For good measure, I made him recite the parts of a human cell, which he was able to do. I was smugly pleased.
The day before the assignment was due, I was a perfect storm of righteous indignation. Sam had told me that this teacher cared more about how things looked than anything else; his “Science Rap” had been down-graded because, although the group knew the relevant material, the music was not properly synced. I muttered to myself about how real learning was the important thing, and what about all of the parents who were living on Food Stamps and couldn’t afford extra food to make a human cell project? What about the parents who couldn’t drive their kids to school so that their projects didn’t get destroyed? How noble was I, going out after work to spend quite a lot of money on Jell-O and an assortment of candy just to please some out-of-touch teacher? I was on fire.
When we got home from the store, I made the Jell-O. The directions didn’t say how much Jell-O, only that it should be “light colored” so that the candy cell parts would show up. We made the pineapple gelatin we had bought, and it didn’t look like nearly enough to hold all of the requisite candy in suspension. We added the box of raspberry gelatin we had cadged from my sister-in-law, and it got very dark. While we let it set for an hour, I looked at my computer. The tide had turned. The children whose mothers had complained were making elaborate, thoughtful concoctions, decorating cakes, working alone or with their parents, making masterpieces. Sam was playing X-box while our too-dark bag of Jell-O failed to thicken in an hour, in an hour and a half, in two hours. I put it in the freezer.
At two hours, after it was already pretty much bed time, we began to follow the instructions about inserting various candies into the Jell-O to simulate the parts of the cell. In order to do this, we had to punch a hole in the Ziploc holding the Jell-O and suspend it from the knob of a kitchen cabinet. We figured that once everything was assembled, we would refrigerate it over night and then move the solid mass into a fresh, un-punctured bag for travel and display purposes. Sam read off the candies and handed them to me so that I could push them down into the mushy, red Jell-O. Immediately, anything with a candy coating began to run; the M & M’s became a smear of opaque darkness, the Skittles blanched white and left a trail of dirty-looking Jell-O. The Airhead Extreme Golgi Body uncoiled immediately after being pushed into the depths, and my fingers left tunnels that did not seem to fill back in. The death blow was administered when I tried to insert the “nucleus,” which was a peach cut in half to reveal the pit. The directions called for a “plum or other stone fruit,” but there are no plums in Michigan in January, and I was damned lucky to have found a peach. It was, however, far too large, it displaced everything else and I had to pull it out, leaving a worse mess. “We could use an olive,” I suggested, rummaging in the refrigerator.
“But I’m supposed to be able to eat this after! I’m not eating Jell-O with candy and a green olive in it. Gross.”
I reminded myself that it was the learning that mattered, not the beauty of the project. I renewed my righteous indignation at having to do this ridiculous thing. I took a deep breath.”Okay,” I said evenly, “get me a Sharpie.” I drew a large black dot in the center of the biggest jawbreaker I could find, and pushed it into the middle of the “cell.” “Don’t eat that one” I told him.
It looked as if someone had eaten a great deal of candy and then vomited it, along with a pint of blood, into a Ziploc. It was unspeakable.
It did not ever “set,” really, and the next morning I sent Sam off to school on the bus with his disaster, secure in the knowledge that we had done our best, that he knew his stuff, and that no one could expect anybody to spend a lot of time, money and psychic energy on something so utterly ridiculous. On Facebook, the conversation continued; everyone else had driven their project to school. I sent the teacher a crisp but polite e-mail informing her that Sam had done his best, that I had done my best, that we had planned well and executed timely, but that I certainly hoped that she recognized that the content was much more important than the perfection of the finished product.
Around 11:30, we received a text from Sam. “Well that was a fale.” He came home that afternoon and told us that everyone else had come in with a better project, and that he was so thrown by the fact that his was so terrible that he was unable to remember all the parts of a cell. He had tried to make a joke out of it to save face; the teacher had told him to “sit down.” I received an equally crisp reply from the teacher telling me that the appearance of the completed project was not part of the grade rubric, but that because Sam had not correctly listed all parts of the cell, his grade was…bad.
Sam’s semester grade did not change; it was okay to start with, and it still is. I am a bad mother, and I understand that, going forward, I need to be more on top of these projects and to keep up with the Joneses, a group that apparently includes everybody but us. I would not, however, trade for anything in the world the fun I had with Sam making that disastrous bag of garbage, or how hard we laughed when we decided that it looked like nothing so much as a Ziploc full of vomit. Lessons learned.
Fast Times pizza delivery: http://www3.whig.com/whig/blogs/ihavealottoshare/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/123046__fast_times_l.jpg