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Thirteen-year-old Noah Ward stands at the edge of the Anacostia River, gazing down into a thick layer of brown sludge. Dense and chunky, it’s a coagulated mess of mud and leaves and trash—old plastic motor-oil containers, candy wrappers, the plastic tips from smoked cigars, and a paper cup from Jerry’s Subs. The gunk extends a good 3 feet from the shore, effectively blocking Noah from the source of his science-fair experiment: the actual water in the Anacostia.
But Noah is not deterred. He didn’t take on this experiment for the annual science fair at Stuart-Hobson Museum Magnet Middle School because he thought it would be easy. “Groundbreaking” is more likely the word he’d use to describe it. No other eighth-grader at Stuart-Hobson—or anyone, as far as Noah knows—has ever attempted such an investigation: an effort to compare the levels of dissolved oxygen in three water sources in the D.C. metropolitan area. Sounds boring at first, and maybe that’s what scared off Noah’s fellow 13-year-olds. But Noah assures me that the information is vital to determining the health of each of the water sources and its capacity to sustain fish and other underwater life.
“I don’t think it’s been done before,” he says.
Of course, it looks as if it might not be done today, either. Noah stands quietly, peering into the muck. His father, Craig Ward, who also doubles as his assistant and chauffeur, stands next to him, staring blankly into the water. He states the obvious: “This water is going to be hard to sample because it’s all full of junk.”
Noah nods knowingly, studying his options. He’s a careful, quiet thinker and doesn’t like to waste time with idle chitchat.
“Can I make a suggestion?” his father asks. Noah doesn’t respond. “You up for an adventure?” Craig Ward continues, a sly grin on his face. Intrigued, Noah turns in his father’s direction. Craig Ward points to the dock nearby and maps out a plan for Noah to walk out past the sludge, climb down the struts of the dock to the water’s surface, and dip a small glass capsule into the water to gather a sample.
Noah hesitates. It doesn’t, after all, seem a well-considered plan, which Noah usually insists on. But the impulsive side of being 13 gets the best of him—not to mention that his father’s proposition seems almost like a dare, and what adolescent can back away from that? So, with a shrug, Noah agrees.
He climbs up the dock and walks out well past the muck, picking a place where there are a few wooden boards to act as rungs for his descent to the water. His father stands above, offering guidance. “If you start slipping, let me know and I’ll grab you,” he says.
Dangling above the Anacostia River is probably not exactly what Noah’s science teacher, Sandra Jenkins, had in mind when she instructed each of her students to come up with a science-fair experiment, an assignment science teachers in most D.C. public schools give during the late winter. They expect the fair will give students hands-on experience and an opportunity to become a “miniexpert” on a topic, as Jenkins likes to say.
Expertise is something Noah thrives on. The oldest of four kids, this mostly straight-A student with a voracious mind knows more than most of his fellow students—and maybe more than some of his teachers. What he does know, he quickly tells you about; what he doesn’t, he always makes a point to find out. But smarts usually don’t gain you much esteem when you’re 13, especially among your peers. Like artists who aren’t respected until after they die, brainy kids like Noah probably won’t get theirs until after they graduate from high school—except during events, like the science fair, designed just for them.
Not that Noah’s concerned about any of that just now. On the dock, he pauses for a moment, then grabs the thermometer—a meat thermometer he borrowed from his mother’s kitchen cabinet earlier this morning. First, he must measure the temperature in the water as input for the complicated calculation to determine dissolved oxygen levels. Noah takes a deep breath, turns, and starts his descent to the water’s surface. His Converse shoes dangle at the end of his long, thin legs, each foot searching for the board below. His green-and-black FILA jacket ripples in the cold February wind. It’s no more than 45 degrees out; it’s even colder in the water.
Three rungs down, he leans out to submerge the thermometer into the frigid water. But just as he does, he loses his footing and his legs slip through, landing his butt right on the board and dunking his legs into the cold water. “Dag! Darn it!” he yells. Those are the words Noah says when he’s really angry.
He pulls himself out quickly and returns to the top of the dock. There Noah and his father stare, perplexed, into the brown water, which might as well be miles away. Finally, Noah spots a ladder at the end of the dock. Of course—a ladder. He could kick himself for not noticing it sooner. His eagerness to get out of the cold and back in the car overcomes his fear of climbing down to the water again, and he completes the next steps in record time—measuring the water temperature (42 degrees) and filling the glass capsule in mere minutes.
But Noah’s problems don’t end with the water collection. Back at the shore, he drops a white tablet into the capsule, screws on the lid, and shakes it vigorously. Once the tablet dissolves, the water is supposed to turn a color—such as orange or pink—to signify how much dissolved oxygen it contains. Ten minutes later, the water is still milky white. Several hours later, after water samples from the Potomac River and Rock Creek turn up the same whitish color, Noah deduces there’s a flaw in the experiment. He offers his astute analysis. “I think something’s messed up,” he says.
“What do you want to do?” asks his father, waiting for directions.
Noah pauses. “Looks like I’ll have to do my backup.”
“What’s your backup?” asks Dad.
“Pigeons,” says Noah, frowning.
“Pigeons” doesn’t quite explain the extent of the backup plan, but it doesn’t leave much out, either. And that’s just what bugged Noah about it.
Months ago, when Jenkins instructed her students to choose their projects, Noah briefly considered an experiment to determine which type of seed pigeons prefer. He quickly dismissed it, though, because it’s not the sort of esteemed scientific question he really wanted to tackle, nor is it what you’d call breakthrough material. It would do nothing for science and certainly nothing for his chances of winning the science fair.
“A kid named Red did this two years before,” explains Noah of the dumped pigeons idea. “If someone had already done it, [the judges would] look at it, say they’d seen it before, and give me a grade. But I wouldn’t move on….What’s the point of going if you don’t [come in] first?”
Students at Stuart-Hobson can place first, second, or third, or get an honorable mention at the school science fair, but only the top winners in each of 10 categories go on to the citywide competition, held in mid-March. It’s a detail that Noah, exacting in nearly everything he does, has not overlooked. Competitors in the citywide fair not only receive the prestige of beating out their fellow students, they also get chances to win cash prizes, scholarships, and internships. To Noah, the citywide competition is really only the beginning.
“I could go to any high school I wanted to,” says Noah.
Noah insists he’s competitive only about the things that matter most to him—such as schoolwork and baseball. But really, his desire to excel is apparent in almost everything he undertakes. He plays friendly neighborhood basketball games with rabid fierceness. He scuffles often with his brother, Micah, only 15 months his junior, about grades, sports, and board games. There are lots of things he does well, but losing is not one of them.
“He plays with intensity. And he loses with intensity,” says his mother, Bonnie Ward.
Born in Connecticut in 1987, Noah moved to Gaithersburg in 1990, and then to D.C. only two-and-a-half years ago, along with his parents, his brother, and his two sisters, all fair-haired and freckle-faced like Noah. His father is a pastor with Church Resource Ministries, an international multidenominational organization. His mother is a substitute teacher. Both are working to start a new Christian fellowship in the District. In the meantime, they run a close-knit, loving yet strict household on Elliott Street NE, not far from tony Capitol Hill, but also not far from downtrodden H Street.
Noah has a few good friends at school but rarely spends time with them after class. He plays basketball with some of the kids in the neighborhood or with the ones he knows from his church youth group. Otherwise, he spends most of his time with his family. On Friday evenings, while most of Noah’s friends are hanging out at Union Station or at other friends’ houses, Noah attends Bible study.
Noah says he likes D.C. and Stuart-Hobson, but he admits there are many things—such as baseball—he still misses about Gaithersburg, which he often describes as a dreamy suburban oasis. He used to play center field for the Wolf Pack, a team organized by a local Catholic school. He’d like to play again, but Stuart-Hobson doesn’t have a baseball team, and he hasn’t been able to find another league for his age group.
He could also go for a little more peace and quiet. During the spring and summer, kids in his neighborhood spend many of their evening hours shooting off firecrackers—which, apparently, didn’t happen in Gaithersburg. “I could leave my window open [in Gaithersburg] and get fresh air and a nice breeze, and I wouldn’t have to hear all this noise and firecrackers going off everywhere,” Noah says after school one day.
I ask him to tell me what else he misses about Gaithersburg, and he pauses. I expect him to say something about his friends or his school or some other sport. Instead, he says this: “It’s less racist there.” He says people call him “white trash” almost every day. “But I try not to take it too personally,” he says.
He’s a thoughtful kid, quiet and reflective and able to articulate an argument if he needs to—which can be often, because his views are not always in keeping with the liberal, youthful ideas of his peers. When a classmate ribs him one day during algebra for wearing Micah’s shirt, Noah’s retort is contemplative: “Keith, how come you can never say positive things?” The class responds with communal “oohs”—part confused, part sarcastic.
And another day, after newspapers reported that kids at nearby Peabody Elementary had found used condoms on the playground and tried to blow them up like balloons, Noah and his classmates discuss ways to improve playground maintenance as part of their advanced science course. Noah takes it one step further and suggests that condom littering would be limited if they weren’t for sale in machines in public restrooms. “What’s the point of condoms?” Noah asks, ready with his own answer. “They’re just for teenagers to have fun.” Jenkins finally has to cut off the debate when his comment prompts heated responses from his classmates, who argue about the dangers of increased teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Noah takes on most of his classroom work with the same level of seriousness and rigor—a pursuit that’s unappreciated by most of his peers, who occasionally mock him when he does well. He explains: “If I get an A, and I go, ‘Yes!’ they’re all like, ‘”Oh, I got an A—I’m all pressed”‘”—which can be loosely defined as “excited,” although it’s usually used in a derogatory way. Noah adds that the mockery is greatest in the hallways, where his fellow
students say things such as “Oh, he’s a nerd. He’s a geek.”
But eighth-graders aren’t known for their consistency, so the teasing can often turn into momentary regard during classroom group projects, when they all want the smart kids on their side. “We do all the work and they get all the glory,” Noah says.
Not that the teasing stops Noah from doing his best in school. But truth be told, science is not his favorite subject. Noah likes history best, especially anything having to do with the Civil War—a passion he shares with his paternal grandfather. Someday, Noah would like to be a lawyer, maybe supporting environmental-cleanup efforts. “I’ve seen some episodes of Law and Order, and I like what happens there,” he says after school one day. “They [have] civilized arguments, unlike what goes on in school.”
Like many scientists before him, Noah knows there can be an unexpected step in the scientific process: starting over.
So Noah is not too discouraged when his first trip to the water sources turns up no reliable results—certainly not discouraged enough to resort to the pigeons. He figures there’s something wrong with the kit he borrowed from Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, a National Park Service area located in Northeast D.C., where Jenkins often takes her classes on field trips. On a Wednesday after a half-day of school, Noah and his father set out to exchange the faulty kit for a new one.
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At Kenilworth, Park Ranger Kate Bucco, a friendly, round-faced woman with Heidilike braids curled around the crown of her head, listens patiently as Noah explains his troubles and then supplies him with a new, more advanced testing kit: chemical solutions in plastic containers, a collection of glass bottles, a white powdery substance, a small scoop, a dropper, and a tool that looks a lot like a syringe (minus the needle), all of it contained in a gray plastic box, just like the kind you might use for holding recipes.
Bucco takes him on a run-through of using the kit, warning him to keep the toxic chemicals away from his skin. Noah listens attentively. When Bucco gets to a step that uses the syringelike tool to suck a chemical from a tube—a process that resembles what a drug user might do to load his needle—Bucco jokes that Noah shouldn’t do that around the cops: “Don’t let the police see you do this; they get a little jumpy.” Noah nods soberly, not quite getting the joke.
Armed with nifty new gadgets, and perhaps intrigued by the aura of the illicit, Noah’s pumped for his next trip out for more field-testing. The following Saturday, he and his father pile in the family van a little after 3:30 p.m. Along the way, Noah makes predictions on which water source will have the highest level of oxygen and will therefore be the most livable for fish. The Anacostia is an automatic no, he says, just judging by the look of it. “I think [Rock Creek] will be less saturated [than the Potomac with dissolved oxygen],” Noah says, “because Rock Creek is much more stagnant than the Potomac.”
“What difference does that make?” asks Craig Ward.
“The more the water’s turning, the higher the water’s atmospheric interference, so there’s more oxygen transfer,” says Noah.
The pair show up at their usual spot along the river in Anacostia Park, just across from the Anacostia Park Pavilion. A late-winter storm of snow and rain has thinned some of the sludge, but Noah instantly bypasses the mess anyway and heads out to the end of the dock. “This time, I’m going straight to the ladder,” he says.
He gathers the water sample easily, capping the glass tube with its black plastic lid and heading back to the edge of the water to conduct the rest of the test. Wearing large plastic goggles that dwarf his face and yellow plastic kitchen gloves that he borrowed from his mom, Noah looks like a miniature cross between Mr. Clean and a mad scientist.
His dad reads to him from a list of typed instructions as Noah carries out the tasks. “Find the clear plastic bottle with pink liquid (manganese sulfate solution) and add eight drops to the amount of water in the sample-collection bottle,” Craig Ward reads. Noah does so, then adds eight drops of a yellow liquid, then dumps a scoopful of some white powder (sulfamic acid powder) in there, too. “Cap the sample-collection bottle and shake vigorously,” continues his father. The water turns a sort of light brown, like the color of amber beer.
Noah grips the tube in one hand and jerks the bottle up and down. He does this while furrowing his brow and sticking the very tip of his tongue out one corner of his mouth, maybe to ensure that the shaking is more vigorous. When he’s done, his father keeps reading, instructing him to pour some of the water sample into another bottle and to fill the syringelike tool with a clear liquid (standard sodium thiosulfate solution), which is held in another container. Next, Noah inserts the syringe into the top of the bottle that contains the new portion of the water sample and adds the solution one drop at a time, until the beerish brown color starts to disappear. Then his father instructs him to add eight drops of a starch solution, which turns the water a deep purple.
Returning the syringe to the top of the tube, Noah continues to add the sodium solution drop by drop, until the purple suddenly vanishes, leaving the water almost perfectly clear—a “magic trick,” Bucco called it. By measuring the amount of liquid dropped from the syringe and multiplying it by .2, Noah calculates the parts per million of dissolved oxygen—in this case it’s 10, which is really pretty low, says Noah.
It’s a complicated process, but it’s one that fascinates Noah. “I can’t wait to do this in class,” he says. But Noah knows there’s little time for daydreaming now. He quickly empties the water sample and heads back to the van.
It’s a long drive between rivers, but Noah manages to make the trip a learning experience all its own, filling any moment of silence with the random questions that fill his head.
“Dad, why would someone go to Mobil when CITGO is over there and their gas is 2 cents cheaper?” he asks. His dad doesn’t have much time to answer, because the questions follow in quick succession.
“Dad, what is a condo? And are they nice?”
“Dad, do CDs ever get used up?”
“Dad, how come in a courtroom there are always 10 jurists?”
Craig Ward: “Are there 10? I thought there were 12.”
Noah: “Anyway, how come there’s an even number?”
The questions stop momentarily when they get to the next stop, Hains Point, where Noah can access the Potomac River. Or so he hopes. His Dad parks the van, and they head to the edge of the water, where there’s a concrete walkway surrounded by metal fencing. Last time they were there, the cold wind churned the river so that the waves nearly reached the top of the concrete edges.
Today, however, the air is calm, and so is the water’s surface, which sits a good 5 feet down from the concrete walkway, where Noah and his father stand staring. “It’s amazing what a windy day can do,” says Craig Ward. He pauses, looks up and down the walkway, and says, “I know what we can do.”
Noah recognizes his tone and flashes his dad a worried look. “Don’t say dangle me down by my ankles,” he warns.
“No, no,” his dad says, shaking his head. He maps out a plan for Noah to climb down the wall to a lower ledge, where he can then lean out and gather the water sample. Craig Ward promises to hold on to Noah while he climbs. It sounds a lot like the plan that landed Noah in the water a few days ago, but teenage bravado overcomes him again, and he agrees with a simple “OK.”
Holding onto his father’s arm, Noah slips under the metal railing that lines the walkway and shimmies down the stone wall to a ledge that juts out over the water’s surface. He hesitates, as if realizing this isn’t such a good plan after all, but then leans slowly over the water. As soon as he fills the sample tube, he’s up and out in a matter of seconds.
Noah settles himself at a nearby picnic table to finish the test, adding the necessary liquids, drop by drop. In the middle of one procedure, though, he loses count. His face twists into a grimace as he realizes his mistake. “Shoot,” he says.
“Do you want to get another sample?” his father asks.
Noah stops, then stares at the river, twisting his lips and contemplating the treacherous return to the water’s surface. “No,” he finally says. “I think it’s all right.”
He’s in and out at Rock Creek—this final stop made easier by the fact that he can walk right up to the water. As it turns out, Rock Creek has less dissolved oxygen than the Potomac but more than the Anacostia, just as Noah predicted.
“So you were right,” his dad says as they pile back into the van. Noah smiles confidently. He never doubted it.
Not every assignment satisfies Noah’s hunger for knowledge—nor do some even tempt him. He’s a discerning student, and though he enjoys tackling a large academic challenge, he doesn’t really like doing the mundane work involved in it.
Take the science fair, for instance. Noah welcomes the mental exercise of calculating dissolved oxygen and using his discoveries to address even larger issues of environmental health. But he doesn’t much care for the research paper that’s also required, four to six pages, a figure Noah and his classmates often recount with emphasis, as if it were the length of a novel.
Nor does he care much for creating the display board that must accompany the project. Once they’ve completed their experiments, students are supposed to write up the background and results of their projects and then exhibit them on some sort of board, usually a piece of cardboard divided into thirds so it can stand on its own. But Noah finds the process of pasting paper to a board a little too mindless for his tastes. “I like to think,” he says.
Noah is usually very focused on his work. He makes a point to tell me so very early on, as if to suggest that any interviews should wait until after he’s finished his schoolwork. “One of my strengths is that I don’t like to talk while I’m working,” he says in a not-so-subtle way as he sits in front of his computer keyboard at home one day.
“Um, OK,” I respond.
He pauses, then softens a bit, perhaps feeling his declaration was too harsh. “I can only give you ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers,” he says finally.
But Noah has trouble sticking to the research paper, which takes him several weeks to complete, much longer than the actual experiment itself did. He’s distracted by other schoolwork, reruns of I Love Lucy, and the thing that even the most disciplined adolescent boy can’t seem to resist: unseasonably warm weather.
Noticing the nearly 60-degree weather on a February afternoon, he drops his schoolwork practically midsentence, picks up a basketball, and heads outside. He crosses the street and heads down an alley to the back yard of a neighbor—a kid named Marcus—where a crooked basketball hoop sits in the middle of a rectangle of dirt, the grass worn away by countless hours of play.
Marcus doesn’t come out to join Noah. But Noah insists that Marcus and his mother don’t care if other kids use their hoop. He also says that Marcus’ neighbor doesn’t mind it when the basketball sails over the chain-link fence and bangs into two cars covered with protective cloths, as it often does. “He only cares if the car alarm goes off,” says Noah.
His game is interrupted by 9-year-old Derrick, who races down the alley on his bike to tell Noah of a very important discovery. Derrick and his twin brother, Eric, live nearby and come by the Wards’ house often to talk Noah or Micah into a game of basketball or football, or, lately, to check in on the Wards’ new puppy, a miniature dachshund named Simba. Derrick says he and Eric don’t have any dogs but they used to have two. One died, and the other one, a German shepherd/Rottweiler/pit bull mix, ran away. Derrick says, though, that his uncle is sure he saw the missing mutt on Oprah, during a segment about dogs who rescue people. “We trained it to do that,” says Derrick.
But today, Derrick’s got bigger things to talk about. “Noah, there’s a giant rat out in front of your house!” he yells, skidding to a stop, nearly out of breath. “Like, if you wanted to go home now, you couldn’t.”
The idea of a humongous rat actually blocking the entry to Noah’s house seems pretty doubtful, but the news is treated as urgent. Noah grabs the ball and races out of the yard, following Derrick, who speeds ahead on his bike. By the time they get to Noah’s stoop, the rat—maybe 8 inches long, including its tail—has hopped only a few yards down the sidewalk. It’s apparently ailing from something, because it’s not scurrying away, just sort of limping along.
Noah grabs a handful of rocks and starts lobbing them gently at the rat, hitting the ground only a few inches from the critter. “I’m not trying to hit it. I just want to scare it away,” he says. He follows it down the sidewalk and into an alley.
Derrick, who hasn’t stopped talking since he showed up at the hoop, offers running commentary on the rat’s condition. “When I first saw it, the face and the back were all red. There’s something wrong with it….Ewwww!…See, it’s jumping. It should be walking. It wouldn’t be jumping if it weren’t messed up…”
Noah listens silently. Derrick alternates between talking and squealing. He’s intrigued by the rat’s sickness. Knowing Noah is a student of science, Derrick picks up on an opportunity: “Noah, that could be your science project.”
Noah does not dignify such a goofy idea with a response.
Derrick starts to laugh, tickled by the silliness of his own suggestion. His laughs turn to guffaws, causing his bike, which he still straddles, to shake beneath him. “That could be your science project, Noah,” he says again, still laughing.
Ask most kids at Stuart-Hobson and they’ll tell you that work on their science-fair projects drags on nearly forever—or at least for months, which can seem endless when you’re 13.
Then, almost overnight, the end comes.
Projects for the school science fair are due on a Wednesday in early March. It’s a date students have known about for months. They’ve had even more time than they expected, because Jenkins had to postpone the school fair to go to a conference on school violence. Still, the scene that morning is one of semicontrolled panic.
Kids show up lugging awkward boards, some sluggish from only a half-night’s sleep (or none at all), others delirious that the monthslong process is finally finished. For the most part, even those who dreaded the fair (which, to be honest, was most of the school) are now excited about their projects, whatever their condition. In class, they talk enthusiastically and show off boards, gloating about their own work or poking fun at their classmates’.
“It looks like you did it this morning,” one student says to another, who flashes back a guilty look.
At the front of the room, Jenkins tries to coordinate the class, urging students to do a final check of their projects for spelling errors and other mistakes and then to bring them to her in the library for registration.
“I don’t think that’s how you spell ‘tongue,’” one girl says to another student, whose project bears the title “Can Your Toungue Detect Color in Your Food?” in big blue letters.
Jenkins’ instructions are interrupted by one student who corners her to tell her that he still needs a display board for his project. Jenkins, who ordered boards for students weeks ago and has been passing them out for days, is incredulous. “Why didn’t you come in yesterday after school to get the board?” she asks.
The student offers an ambiguous excuse, but one that apparently seems definitive in his mind: “Because my grandma came to pick me up and she said, ‘Come on.’”
Still, some students have managed to overcome their obstacles and turn in completed projects on time. Days ago, the situation looked bleak for Jonathan Young, Noah’s friend and classmate, who planned to test different ways of calming his pet fish. His pool of testing sources was drastically reduced, however, in a tragic event that occurred only weeks before the project was due.
“My father basically murdered them,” Jonathan summarizes.
Murder may be overstating it a bit, but what happened was this: Jonathan’s dad, unbeknownst to the rest of the family, decided to buy a big-screen TV. When he brought it home, the family had to do a last-minute rearranging of the living room to accommodate the huge appliance. The living room also happens to be where Jonathan’s fish live—in a giant, heavy aquarium. Jonathan’s dad had to empty some of the water from the aquarium to move it, but instead of refilling it with lukewarm, treated water, he just dumped in some cold tap water, which killed some of the fish, says Jonathan. Jonathan wanted to buy more to carry out his experiment, but at first his mom wouldn’t have it, because the family plans to move to a new house soon.
Luckily, Jonathan’s mother relented and agreed he could get more fish as long as he gave them away to a neighbor when it came time to move. He agreed. And last night, he completed his project—”Can Calcium Help Fish Relax?”—and still had time to watch Gone in 60 Seconds on the big-screen TV.
Noah wasn’t so lucky. He finished his project and brought the display board to school for registration. He stored the fancy testing kit Bucco had lent him in his locker. But when he went to the locker before science class, he discovered that the kit—which he planned to display with his project—was missing.
His story comes tumbling out as soon as he sees Jenkins. “Ms. Jenkins—this morning I opened my locker and my test kit was in my hood [of my coat] and it fell out and I didn’t notice it and now I don’t know where it is,” he says, without taking a breath.
Jenkins stares and listens, but she’s already knee-deep in crisis stories. “Well, we’re going to have to figure out what you did with it,” she says, rounding up the class and herding them to the library.
Noah follows along and sits at one of the tables in the library, a basement-level room the color of Pepto-Bismol. He listens to all of Jenkins’ instructions on registration, but he can’t help but think about the lost kit. He fidgets and sweats. He doesn’t know how much the kit costs, but given all the nifty tubes and the syringe thing and the strange chemical mixes, it’s probably expensive—which means its loss won’t be good news to Bucco or to Noah’s parents. Not to mention that it could blow his chances in the science fair.
Noah doesn’t like to shift blame. And as he told Jenkins, he could have misplaced it on his own. But he’s usually very responsible, and he doesn’t rule out the possibility that someone could have swiped it. He says he’s had about 30 pens and pencils stolen in the past, and one time, somebody busted the electronic organizer his parents bought for him. There’s a big black splotch on the screen now, right where he used to be able to type in letters and numbers. “I never found out who,” says Noah.
Given the timing, he wonders whether someone could have deliberately taken a vital part of his science-fair project, although he doesn’t recall an act of sabotage at the Stuart-Hobson science fair. Eighth-grader Joseph Taylor says that one year he did a project on vitamins, and, in keeping with the topic, he wrote the word “vitamins” on his display board using—what else?—vitamins. Somebody picked all the pills off. “But that was after the science fair was over,” Taylor says.
Jenkins finally stops the class to break for lunch, but she tells the students they won’t have recess today. Instead, Principal Rita Johnson wants to meet with all the eighth-graders in the auditorium. The students groan when they hear this.
Noah’s classmates head out the door and trickle into the auditorium. But Noah, who is usually very obedient, turns scofflaw. “It’s just some lecture on talking or something. I’m not that talkative,” he says, heading down the hallway in search of his lost testing kit. “I’m not going to the auditorium until I find my test kit.”
About four times a year, Stuart-Hobson’s two security guards relinquish their jurisdiction to one of the most feared forces in all of D.C. schools: the “locker police,” as they’re not so affectionately called by students and teachers. Dispatched by D.C. public schools central offices, this formidable band of security guards makes its way to District middle and high schools to conduct random searches of its particular enemy: the locked metal hideaway that conceals anything a kid brings to school, including things he probably shouldn’t.
On a March morning, the locker police set their sights on the lockers at Stuart-Hobson. While students are occupied in classrooms, the locker police inspect their private stashing areas, trailing a school janitor who randomly opens lockers with a master key. Someone else scribbles the findings on a clipboard. Assistant Principal Benjamin Montgomery stands watch.
They’re looking for the obvious threats, such as weapons and drugs. But they’re also looking for things banned by school officials, such as glass containers, cell phones, and beepers. And then there’s the miscellaneous category. That’s for anything that’s not specifically banned but that could be dangerous—especially if someone is really creative with it—or for anything else they can’t otherwise recognize.
So when they come to Locker 165, they find something that’s particularly alarming. Stuffed inside a black-and-green coat, they find chemical solutions in plastic containers, a collection of glass bottles, a white powdery substance, a small scoop, a dropper, and a tool that looks a lot like a syringe (minus the needle), all of it contained in a gray plastic box, just like the kind you might use for holding recipes.
Montgomery tells them he thinks it might be for the science fair. But the locker police are experts, trained in this type of investigation, and as far as they can tell, the only thing this box holds is a recipe for disaster. It’s gotta go, they tell him. Gotta go. They deposit the box in a bag filled with all sorts of illicit goods, such as Walkmans and glass bottles, which they later leave in the school’s main office.
So when Noah goes into the main office later that afternoon, searching desperately for his missing testing kit, Montgomery knows exactly which box he’s talking about. “I went to the office and I said, ‘Mr. Montgomery, have you seen a box about this big?’” Noah explains later, holding his hands about 8 inches apart. “And he said, ‘Yes, the locker police took it.’”
Noah retrieves the box and returns it to his locker, just in time to join his classmates for the end of Johnson’s lunchtime lecture. It’s the sort of episode that could really set off a reflective kid like Noah, maybe make him angry that the locker police invaded his privacy or possibly ruined his chances at the science fair—or even undermined the very course of science itself.
But Noah is nothing if not levelheaded. He understands that the world—and school—is a complex place. He just tries to make his way through both as best he can, carrying on even if outside forces are against him. He lost his kit, looked for it, found it. Now he has to get on with the competition.
“I wasn’t angry,” he says later. “Just frustrated.”
On Thursday—the day of the science fair—it’s a group of adults that gathers in the pink-hued library under Jenkins’ instruction: the 12 men and women who will serve as the fair’s judges.
Jenkins says she used to seek out judges who were experts in scientific fields—she’d have an actual chemist judge chemistry, for example. But their expectations were so high and their questioning of students so stringent that the pressure proved too much for the kids. “The last year we did that it was so intense, the kids would cry,” says Jenkins.
So the group gathered today consists of former administrators and teachers, as well as some who still teach at D.C. schools, a retired pharmacist, and a couple of college students on spring break—many of them with some science-related experience. They sit around the tables, sipping coffee and listening to Jenkins’ instructions.
Yesterday’s chaos has subsided some. In the gymnasium across the hallway, students assemble their final projects along tables and below signs designating each of the 10 categories. About 150 total, the efforts range from the bland to the bizarre. Jenkins and the other science teachers at Stuart-Hobson have implemented an unofficial ban on some of the usual projects, such as erupting volcanoes or comparisons of paper airplanes. Nonetheless, there are still some of the old standbys: bridges built out of popsicle sticks, eggs packaged in insulating containers and then dropped from a second-story window, and all types of consumer-oriented studies that compare products to see which is best—lotions, tub cleaner, hair spray, spaghetti sauce, laundry detergent, cling wrap, nail polish, and potato chips.
Because middle-schoolers have just started to take an interest in members of the opposite sex—but not enough to overcome their impulse to hate them—a practical gender war plays out in the assembled projects. Plenty are devoted to comparing the various traits and abilities of boys and girls, most of them a tad biased toward the gender of the creator. One project by three girls titled “Is It a Boy or a Girl??” compares girls’ and boys’ maturity levels. The results are as follows: “We found that boys laugh at serious topics, which is considered immature….[B]oys react when they hear certain words like sex….”
Then there are some projects so strange and creative they can’t really be grouped with others. Ones like “Blink, Blink. Is It Mandatory for You to Blink?” and “Orange You Glad You Have Taste Buds?” One project aims to find whether shaking beans before planting them helps plants grow. (No, in case you’re wondering.) One sixth-grade student built a Van de Graaff generator—a complex contraption that emits static electricity—out of a small motor, a long plastic tube, and a couple of mixing bowls taped together.
Noah’s project sits on the end of the table for the environmental-science category, along with 10 others, experiments that evaluate acid rain and water pollution and whether gas stations affect the soil around them. But Noah knows which ones are the prime contenders. “My main competition are these two,” he said during setup the day before, pointing to a project on the effects of acid rain, by Luke O’Donnell, and another comparing pollution in different quadrants of the District, by Helen Rush, both fellow eighth-graders.
They’re fine projects. But Noah is confident he can beat them. Still, he joked about boosting his chances the day before. “I could easily win if I wanted to,” he said, staring at the projects. “I could take their papers and rip them up.” He was joking, mostly, but for a moment, his face turned pensive.
But by today, it’s too late for subversion tactics. About 9:30 a.m., the judges enter the gymnasium. They divide into groups, deciding which categories each will judge. Students are not allowed into the gymnasium during the judging, except for a few who act as assistants, like Redentor “Red” Abcede, a classmate and friend of Noah’s. But if the judges have questions, or need to break a tie, they can call students in for personal interviews.
Anna Holmes, a retired teacher, and Gloria Younger, a current one, are assigned to the environmental-science category and spend the next hour or so carefully reading over each of the projects, then conferring with each other on their top picks. By 11:45 a.m., they summon their finalists for individual interviews.
Noah’s the first to be called. Red hunts him down and pulls him out of class. Holmes and Younger ask him some easy questions, such as how he came up with the project and how long it took. Noah rattles on about dissolved oxygen and saturation levels and introducing new species into ecosystems. Holmes and Younger smile and nod.
“Did you get support?” asks one, fishing around to see if Noah’s parents did all the work.
Noah gives them a confused look. “Support?” He pauses, then says finally, “My parents were a bit skeptical at first, because they weren’t exactly crazy about driving me all around the city to get the samples.”
Holmes and Younger giggle again, impressed by his knowledge and no doubt charmed by his politeness and articulate speech. Even when he’s not describing complex scientific ideas, Noah can sound more like 40 than 13. They ask how the project could help him with his future plans, and he tells them about his hopes to become an environmental lawyer.
“We need them,” says Holmes.
They flash beaming looks, thank him, and send him away, calling for the next student to be interviewed: Luke, just as Noah predicted.
Outside, Noah talks confidently. “I don’t think Luke’s going to win, because his title is ‘How Acid Rain Affects the pH of Water and Soil,’ and that’s obvious. It makes it more acidic and can kill plants and animals,” he says. “We did that project in the fourth grade.”
Just then, Luke rounds the corner, headed toward the gym. He’s too far away to really hear what Noah’s saying, but he must sense that someone’s been talking trash about his project.
“Noah, just because I’m going to beat your ass doesn’t mean you have to be mean,” he says, smiling. He passes Noah, and the two stare at each other, grinning nervously.
“Looks like we have some competition here,” Luke says as he heads into the gym.
School technically starts at 8:45 a.m. at Stuart-Hobson, but the 15 minutes before 9 a.m. turn out to be near-chaos most mornings. Students trail in late, rushing to their first classes or not rushing and standing in the hallways chatting with other late students. The ones who do make it into the classrooms on time usually talk excitedly about the previous day or scramble to locate books, papers, and pencils.
That 15-minute window also happens to be when Principal Johnson gives her morning announcements, so, most mornings, very few students actually hear them. On the Monday after the science fair, Johnson makes an extra effort to quiet students before revealing the results of the school’s competition. “Students should be listening to the morning announcements,” she intones from the intercom.
The kids still go nuts in Ernest Garner’s algebra class, Noah’s first class of the day. Garner tries to quiet them down, given the import of the messages to come. “Let’s listen, students. Please, let’s listen,” he pleads.
On Friday, Jenkins provided a hint about the identity of the winners when she passed out packets to all of those who had received a first, second, third, or honorable mention designation from the judges. She didn’t reveal who got what, but she said each winner needed to fill out the paperwork to be eligible for the citywide fair, to be held the next weekend. Only the top finisher in each category would go, but Jenkins instructed all winners to fill out the forms, in case some of the first-place winners couldn’t make it to the big competition.
Noah received one of the packets. So did Luke, who Noah is still certain is his main competition. Ever since their Thursday interviews, they’ve been bantering back and forth about who has swept the category.
Luke also happens to be in Garner’s class this Monday, but when he enters, he doesn’t take part in the jesting. Noah, whose sensitivity usually trumps his competitive side, temporarily drops the taunting, too.
“Polly, what’s wrong with Luke?” he asks another student when Luke steps out of the class. “He’s not smiling like he usually is. And he’s not talking like he usually is.” Polly shrugs.
Luke’s silence appears to be nothing more than Monday-morning lethargy, because by the time Johnson finally makes it to the science-fair results, he quickly joins the jeering. From the front row, he turns to give a sly smirk to Noah, who is seated several rows back. Noah smiles, too, sticking his chin out. So much for the sensitivity.
Johnson proceeds through the winners, plodding through category by category, listing name, place, and project name. She gets tangled in some of the scientific pronunciations. When she gets to a winner in the physics category—a project on viscosity—she can’t quite produce the words. “How to measure visos—” she says, stopping. She tries again, “vis—…vis—” she says, before finally giving up midsentence and moving on to the next winner.
Students quiet some, but they still chatter through most of the names. Some draw claps; some get laughs or groans. “Oh God, we did not have that win,” moans one student when Johnson announces that a prize goes to a project called “Why Won’t the Jell-O Jell?”
“That’s horrible,” continues the student. “What kind of judges do we have down there?”
Noah’s nervousness and teasing have evolved into plain nervousness. He chews anxiously on a wad of electric-blue bubble gum, chomping and blowing bubbles and popping and pulling and chewing some more. He chews through the announcements of winners for chemistry and behavioral science. He pops and chomps through botany and zoology. Then comes microbiology. Pop. Red gets first place for his project. Smack. Noah fidgets in his seat. Come on, environmental science.
Then, finally, here it is. “Environmental science,” Johnson intones over the intercom. Noah glances again, nervously, at Luke. Students chat loudly around him, but he stares at the intercom, concentrating, as if the staring might help him hear. “First place…” Johnson starts. Noah sits perfectly still, eyes fixed on the intercom.
Then he hears it.
“‘Dissolved Oxygen,’ by Noah Ward.”
Noah pauses, not really reacting, perhaps wondering if she really said it or if it was just the same fervent wish he’d been repeating in his head. Then somebody gives him a congratulatory shove from behind, so he knows he wasn’t the only person to hear his name. He smiles sweetly.
And then he shoots a quick “Ha!” at Luke.
“I got second,” Luke calls in a sing-songy way from the front row, after hearing his name from the intercom.
Next, the principal announces the overall winners for the fair, five students who the judges believe created the best projects in the entire competition. Most of the students talk through this, so you can barely hear the names. But Noah listens attentively, and in the din of the classroom noise, he hears his name listed as the third-place winner. He raises his eyebrows, surprised and pleased. No one else in the class responds, but he drops his head and smiles in a moment of private revelry. It’s as if all the work, the hassle, the teasing from classmates have suddenly dropped away and he’s left, simply, content with himself.
Of course, the dignified self-celebration doesn’t last long, and when Noah heads to the front of the room to throw away his gum—maybe he’s through with it, or maybe it’s a convenient route past Luke—he can’t help but gloat a little.
“I told you,” he jeers at Luke as he passes.
Luke quips back, again reminding Noah that he got second.
But Noah knows he’s covering. “Then don’t be mad,” he says on the way back to his desk, smiling. “Be glad.”
After all, Noah is. CP
The following weekend, Noah Ward won a third-place prize in the environmental-science category at the citywide competition, as well as a weeklong fellowship at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and $250 in cash. He used the rest of that Sunday afternoon contemplating how to spend it.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Pilar Vergara.