When the Wheels Fell Off the Wagon

Watching my older son fail at the Maryland History Day competition on Saturday was one of the toughest things I’ve done as a parent.  He had paced through the hours between his presentation to the judges and announcement of the awards.  At the awards ceremony, his face was pale.  He clenched and unclenched his hands and jaw, and stared intently at the emcees while other awards were announced. When his name wasn’t called for either the first or second place in his category, his posture sagged and I could see that he was working hard to keep his emotions under control.  When we left the Retriever Athletic Center at UMBC, he stormed off ahead of me.  An hour later, I had never been prouder of him, even though he had failed to accomplish an important goal.

My son blundered into the National History Day competition by accident in sixth grade.  All we knew was that it was a compulsory school project that would be a big part of his grade.  He was dragging his feet on picking a topic the afternoon before it was due.

“What do you want to do the project on?” I asked him in exasperation.
He picked up a rubber chicken toy.  “Something with chickens,” he said.
“Fine,” I said.  “Let’s go to the Internet and look up chicken history.  Let’s have some fun with this.”

He found a book on the development of large-scale chicken farming on the Delmarva Peninsula.  He visited an agricultural museum in Delaware and a poultry farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  He designed an exhibit board shaped like a chicken, and used some basic model railroad construction techniques to build a diorama.  I was surprised when he received an award for the project at his school.  Astounded when the project won cash prizes at the county and state competitions.  Charmed when I watched him run around the University of Maryland campus to trade state buttons with competitors from all over the United States and beyond.  Thrilled when I saw the impact of success in the History Day competition on his self-esteem.  He was thinking of himself as a success.  A winner.

Through two more years of History Day projects, both of which advanced to the national level of competition, I watched him grow academically and personally.  He chose more complex topics each year.  He tackled college-level source material, and his research and writing skills improved.  His analysis of challenging data became better.  He gained confidence by interviewing people for the projects.  He learned to use a hot-glue gun.  He began to meet interim deadlines with less urging (okay, less screaming) on my part.  Even his math grades came up, because succeeding at History Day convinced him that he was a good student and could master challenging material.  In eighth grade, even though he wants a career in science or medicine, he chose the History Day competition over the Science Fair when the deadlines were too close together for him to participate in both.  He finally won an award at nationals that year – “Best Entry from the State of Maryland.”

Freshman year is the last in which participation in History Day is mandatory for some students at my son’s high school.  I was glad that he would complete one final project.  Competing and succeeding in History Day had become a part of his identity as a student; success in the competition would help keep his self-esteem up during the transition to high school; and the extra work would help to prepare him for the greater workload in future AP classes.

“This is my last year,” he insisted.  “I’ll have too much homework next year.”

I thought he might be right:  he had put in more than a hundred hours on each of his first three History Day projects.  Like most fourteen-year-old boys, my son disdained parental input and advice.  I watched him forget or ignore most of what he had learned in the first three years of competition.  He created a very good project – but it was not up to the standard of the previous three.  I told myself over and over: This is his project.  He’s growing up; I won’t be around to offer advice and suggestions forever.  Sooner or later, he has to succeed or to fail on his own.  And on April 27th, at the 2013 Maryland History Day, his project did not advance to the national level of the competition.

“What did I do wrong?” he asked me on the way home.
“What do you think you did wrong?” I asked.

View History Day photos:

For the next half-hour, he evaluated his own work.  He spent too much time on Xbox and TV, he said.  He used low-hanging fruit for source material, and was satisfied with it.  He had lacked the confidence to request an interview with someone who won a Nobel Prize.  He could have done a dynamic diorama instead of a static display.  He could have taken the advice of his seventh-grade social studies teacher, and made the project interactive.  He knew that standards in the senior division would be higher, and that he would be competing against upperclassmen, but he hadn’t made enough extra effort.

“I treated it like a junior division project,” he said.  “And I thought that because I went to nationals for three years in a row, I would automatically go again this year.  I was overconfident.”
“This probably isn’t the right day for me to tell you that sometimes you learn more from failing than you do from winning,” I said a few minutes later.
“No!” he replied.  “Absolutely this is not the right day for that!”

So instead, I told him about working at the U. S. Embassy in Moscow for an army colonel who had been selected for the rank of brigadier general, but whose promotion had been delayed for political reasons.

“What’s going to happen if your promotion never comes?” someone asked soon after his arrival.
“Sooner or later,” the colonel said, “the wheels fall off the wagon for everyone.  You have to have something to go to when that happens.  It doesn’t matter if I retire as a colonel, or as a general.  I have a life beyond the Army, and when I’m no longer serving I’m going to live that life.”

“It sounds like the wheels fell off your History Day wagon today,” I said.  “What are you going to do next?”
“I’m not sure,” he said.

“The way I see it,” I told him, “you have two choices.  You can put all this behind you and focus on your homework next year.  Or you can choose to put the wheels back on the wagon and head up the hill again.  You can do a project next year, even though it’s not mandatory.  You can learn from your mistakes, put in the work you’re capable of doing, and take another shot at the national competition.  But you don’t have to.  You’re growing up, and you can make more choices for yourself.  This is one of them.”

He was very quiet for a few minutes.
“What’s the theme for next year?” he asked.  He started to brainstorm some ideas for a project, a title, a diorama. He sat up straighter, and his eyes started to sparkle.
“I’m glad my project didn’t advance to nationals this year,” he said.
“You are?  Why?”
“Well, if I’d gone to nationals, this would probably have been the last year I participated in History Day.  But since I didn’t make it to nationals, I’m going to do it again. I’m not going to make the same mistakes next time.  I’m going to do a better job.  And I’m glad I’m going to do it again.”

My son may or may not do a History Day project next year, but as of today, the competition is part of his game plan for 2014.I would have been proud of him if his History Day project had advanced to the national competition this year.  But I’m more proud of what he accomplished when he failed to go.

The History Day competition doesn’t just teach social studies content, analytical skills, and presentation.  It’s more than an opportunity for a student to succeed. It can teach life skills, like how to handle failure – and how to recover.

      Jerri Bell, History Day Parent

Do you have a similar story to share?  Please leave a response below or on MHC’s Facebook Fan Page.  Our thanks to our History Day parent and her son for sharing their very personal reflections after the 2013 Maryland History Day competition. The 2013 History Day State Contest results will be posted here tomorrow. To learn how you can support MHC programs for students, click here. Want to discover more?  Read the September 2011 NY Times Magazine Education ArticleWhat if the Secret to Success is Failureby Paul Tough.


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4 Responses to “When the Wheels Fell Off the Wagon”

  1. Rob Roy Ratliff Says:

    What a wonderful son AND wonderful Mother!
    Thank you Mrs. Bell for sharing this beautiful and touching account.
    And there’s a lesson for us all. We all make mistakes but we can recover from them and do better. May we all benefit from this moving letter and do better.

  2. April Says:

    Thank you for your inspiring story. Although your son didn’t advance to the national competition this year, he’s most definitely a winner. I echo Rob Roy Ratliff’s post when I share that your son’s response — to tackle the 2014 competition, drill more deeply, and learn from his mistakes — serves as a great role model to NHD students and to us all.

  3. athearn Says:

    Our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasure (Rainier Maria Rilke)

  4. Opal Says:

    Thanks a lot for sharing this terrific web page.

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