The Detroit Nursery School Olympics (revisited)

Posted by jdg | Friday, August 03, 2012

I know that re-posting old content is one of the laziest and most despicable things a blogger can do, but my wife has been working really hard lately and I have been with the kids every day all summer and this week they've been staying up really late to watch the Olympics.  This post originally appeared July 1, 2008, before the Beijing Olympics. Sadly, planners of the Detroit Nursery School Olympics did not give it a second try in 2012 (though a similar event in the suburbs drew over 100 kids). In the years since this event, my daughter has consistently reminded me of "the day [she] won all those medals." She has completely forgotten she was the only kid there, and I wish I could tell the organizers how fondly she remembers it. 

[art work by our friend Xenos]
One of the highlights of my week is scouring the newspaper's weekly calendar of local events for activities to break up the monotony. Estonian folk dancing at the public library! Burlesque costuming workshop at Studio 601! One of the Wayans brothers is coming to town! I circle events and file them away inside the Trapper Keeper full of appointments in my mind. We rarely do any of it, but at least I know we can go to a Tyler Perry film festival or a spaghetti dinner at St. Jude's if we get bored.

A few weeks ago, I read about one event that I knew we couldn't miss: The Detroit Nursery School Olympics: "Hosted for tomorrow's champions, events include Marshmallow Shot Put, Big Wheel Grand Prix, Paper Plate Discus, Diaper Derby, Toddler Trot and more!" Hot damn, I thought, that will burn at least an hour of daylight! My only regret was the lack of a crawling tot to participate in the diaper derby. It has always been my dream to sire a diaper derby champion. When the morning of the Detroit Nursery School Olympics arrived, the kid put on her wristbands, headband, and her striped tube socks. I gave her a pep talk, thinking of all those other parents out there training their kids for weeks in the Paper Plate Discus or the Big Wheel Grand Prix, and I told her that even if she didn't win a gold medal, I'd still love her. In the car, already late for the opening ceremonies, we found ourselves following a flatbed truck loaded with port-a-johns down Jefferson Avenue. "Look Juney," I said. "A truck full of potties!"

"A truck full of potties?" she screamed, "Where?"

"Right in front of us." Cue uproarious laughter from the back seat.

We followed that truck full of potties all the way to the site of the Detroit Nursery School Olympics, where it turned and lurched across the green lawn. "I think those potties are going to the Olympics, too," I said.

And there stood Detroit's Nursery School Olympic Village, awaiting a half dozen self-contained shit boxes. It was a gorgeous day. Tents had been erected to shelter the forty or so volunteers and three security guards from the sun. There were a dozen different sporting events set out, from a tiny basketball court to a bean bag toss to a mini golf course. There were gym mats for the diaper derby; cones positioned in a slalom for the Big Wheel Grand Prix. At each station two or three volunteers stood around ready to assist the pint-sized competitors. There were coolers full of dew-dripping Capri Suns and boxes of Goldfish crackers. There were medals and ribbons laid out, waiting to be awarded.

There just weren't any kids.

Yep: my daughter was the only kid at the 2008 Detroit Nursery School Olympics.

Remember that scene in John Huston's Annie where the titular urchin and Miss Farrell first enter the Warbucks mansion and hundreds of servants gather in the great entrance hall to greet them with a Busby Berkeley song-and-dance number, you know, with the leggy chambermaids and the gardener who pirouettes his way over to the trellis which he then climbs to deliver Annie a single rose? Well that's kind of what it was like to walk up to the empty Detroit Nursery School Olympics holding a 3-year-old by the hand. But unlike a plucky, attention-starved orphan, my child did not burst into song about how she thought she was going to like it there. As more than forty volunteers crowded around to welcome an actual living, breathing child, she screamed and hid behind my legs, burying her face in the back of my knee. A few of them did back handsprings and clapped while a few others scooted backwards doing jazz hands, and I said, "We'll just wait over here a few minutes for some more kids to show up." As we stood there, I looked over the flier they'd handed me when we'd arrived:

Welcome to the 2008 Detroit Nursery School Olympics!

10:30 Opening Ceremonies
10:45 Children Compete in events
11:45 Awards Presentation
12:00 Closing Ceremonies

It was nearly 11:00, and still no other kids. I'd told her there would be lots of other kids there, and she kept asking me where they all were. I signed in, guessing how many jelly beans were in the jar for a big prize and sliding the bent slip of paper containing my guess into an empty fishbowl. A woman who seemed to be in charge asked how old my kid was and then told me she had a daughter the same age. Where was this daughter? One kid was pathetic, but two would have made a competition with odds I could support. I offered to borrow one of their vans and go round up a few dozen rugrats on Belle Isle but they warned that would probably constitute kidnapping.

After a few more minutes we headed over to the first event. The woman whose own daughter was MIA enthusiastically escorted us, explaining each event in detail despite the presence of eager volunteers at each station. "After you throw a marshmallow," she said, "We'll let you eat another one. I think we have enough for that." She said all this as though she'd spent the previous evening practicing how to warn gaggles of feisty urban children not to eat the marshmallows. Unfortunately, my child is really bad at throwing things. I don't think any item she's ever thrown has gone in the direction she intended. The key was having her stand backwards and telling her to throw it as far in front of her as she could. The marshmallow landed a respectable distance behind her. So the Marshmallow Shot Put? Gold medal. Paper Plate Discus? Gold medal. Toddler Trot? Gold medal. By the time she'd completed all the events, she had so much gold around her neck you could have slapped on a feather earring and called her B.A. Baracus.

* * * * *

I'm the guy who purposefully dines in empty restaurants. I'm a glutton for this particular type of heartbreak. I figure I should spend my money where it's actually appreciated. But the surly waitress always looks like she wants me to leave so she can go hang out with her friends; how's one sawbuck left on the table going to solve any of her problems? What's the price of our whole meal against the owner's rising tide of obligations? I sit there in an empty restaurant and say to my wife, "What if we hadn't come in here tonight? Would some other fools have taken pity on this place?"

If you hold a Nursery School Olympics and no one comes, does it even count? What if one kid shows up: does it really make any difference? A week or so later, and I sit down to a hot cup of coffee and the Saturday morning newspaper. What's going on this week, kiddo? Urban Oasis Nature Walk. Free. I undo the velcro and pencil that one in, fully prepared for a private tour full of roused pheasants, fleeting foxes, and abandoned tires.

[Again, this post first appeared July 1, 2008.  Congratulations to all the young champions on the 2012 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team: you have some big fans in this household. All the hooting and hollering is keeping me from getting anything else done.]