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Lessons learned for fair week last a lifetime

It’s Alpena County Fair Week! I’m learning that this one week of summer really takes on a whole new meaning when you have a child in 4-H.

I spent many long days at the Fairgrounds while growing up. The fair was the most important event of the year. It was the culmination of a year’s worth of preparation. If you didn’t do your due diligence throughout the year, it would show. If you tried to cut corners, it would show. It was the ultimate test of your ability to acquire new skill, apply what you had learned, and demonstrate your proficiency.

Children who belong to a 4-H Club start with small challenges. There are a lot of smaller projects that will lead to ventures of a grander scale as the years progress. An 8-year-old may start by learning the names of all the body parts of a sheep; whereas a teenager will continue to build on the knowledge base and develop a project demonstrating the veterinary care of a sheep afflicted by specific ailments. Projects can range from raising animals like cattle of rabbits, to showing proficiency in archery or environmental conservation.

By the time I “retired” from 4-H (I had reached the upper age limit), I had been showing horses, raising and showing beef cattle, competing in rodeo, and making enough crafts and art projects to fill a whole church bazaar for eight consecutive years, and had even developed a water quality workshop. I learned the nuts and bolts of all these areas but most importantly, I learned life skills like compassion and encouragement for others who are trying to learn something new, acceptance of the occasional failure; and, if you don’t put in the time, you won’t reap the rewards.

If, throughout the year, I chose to forgo the responsibilities of spending time with my baby calf to teach it to walk with me, and instead lounged around and read books, it would show during fair week. And it did. One year I had a rambunctious and unruly calf named Pancho who did more leading me around the show ring than of me leading him.

After the judge assessed all the entries in the class he got on the microphone and commented on who did well, who showed their animal with grace and finesse (an indication they had spent time working with the animal throughout the year), and who could have spent more time with their animal: “like the young lady in the blue and orange shirt.” Meaning, me.

It wasn’t bullying. It wasn’t ostracizing. Did it make me feel wonderful and warm and fuzzy to be called out in front of my friends and family? Absolutely not, but that was the lesson. Was the calf partly at fault for having a high-strung nature? Of course, but it was still my responsibility to prepare myself to handle the animal and to have trained the animal to respect a certain level of duty in the show ring. If nothing had been said I would have left the ring having learned nothing. In contrast, there was another year that I worked with my calf so much, she would lie down and I could lie against her and read a book. Lesson learned.

There were also many late nights and early mornings spent taking care of animals. No matter where you went on the grounds you were safe. Someone was always watching out for you. Something that was welcome as a child, but of course, not so welcome as a teenager!

On Saturday we dropped off all of my daughter’s fair entries. This is her very first year showing something at the fair. Throughout the past year she has made a number of crafts to demonstrate her creativity. She has entered a beaded bracelet, solar lantern, and a bag she designed out of a T-shirt.

We are going to go in and watch the poultry showmanship classes because she wants to show her chicken next year and doesn’t know what to expect. She’s a bit nervous but knows that observing others will help her better understand what she needs to do to get ready for next year’s fair. We’ll go back to the Grandstand and see if any of her craft projects earned a ribbon.

I can’t wait to watch her grow with this organization and experience the excitement of learning and sharing her knowledge.

If you’ve become disenfranchised and jaded with the state of the world today, I urge you to head to the Alpena County Fair. Head to the barns and ask the youngsters about their animals. An appreciation for the life lessons these kids are learning, and the pride they show in their hard work, is quite likely to restore your hope in humanity.

Mary Beth Stutzman’s Inspiring A-Town runs bi-weekly on Tuesdays. Follow Mary Beth on Twitter @mbstutz.