In Lance Armstrong’s 2000 book, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, he chronicled his struggle to overcome cancer and the insights he gained along the way about the strength of the human spirit. I contemplate this as I sit on a hay bale in the livestock barn at the 2011 San Mateo County Fair, watching the 4-H kids, including my daughter, care for their steers, lambs, goats, pigs, turkeys, and chickens. Their journey is certainly not as harrowing as Lance’s, but there are many parallels among the lessons they learn along the way.
For the past seven months, I have been one of two lamb project leaders for the San Carlos-Eaton Hills 4-H club. If you had asked me three years ago if I thought I would ever be a 4-H livestock leader, I would have rolled my eyes like a teenager. My daughter is now showing her third lamb and first pig, and I know more about raising Suffolk-Hampshire show lambs than I ever thought possible including a stockpile of fascinating trivia for my next cocktail party. I have had the privilege of watching the San Carlos 4-H lamb kids progress from clueless greenhorns to confident, knowledgeable showmen in a matter of months.
The real teachers responsible for this transformation are the animals. As an adult leader my job is to provide instruction, guidance, and support, and then get out of the way. The 4-H members do things for these animals that you would be hard-pressed to observe at home. For example, kids must feed their animals and clean the barn every morning starting at 6:30 and every evening for the run of the fair. Did I mention that most of these kids are middle and high school students on summer vacation who would like nothing better than to sleep until noon? These are the same kids who drag their heels when it comes to cleaning their rooms at home, but eagerly wield brooms and shovels to clean smelly animal pens at the fair.
I have eyewitness accounts of 4-H kids willingly helping each other with lamb shearing, showmanship tips, grooming advice, and barn duty, in spite of the fact that they are all competing against each other in the show ring. Unlike the family dog, these animals are not pets and did not get the memo about optimal behavior in the show ring. Some of them are notoriously stubborn (just about all the pigs), and all the kids had to conjure up large doses of persistence, patience, and dedication when raising these animals.
Nothing warms my heart more than watching a kid take responsibility for the welfare of his or her lamb without adult intervention. 4-H wholeheartedly endorses the “learning by doing” method and kids were forced to learn how to treat hoof rot, scours, loss of appetite, and even rectal prolapse on the fly. They learned how to handle endless challenges such as lambs that wouldn’t brace or set up in the show ring, lambs that wouldn’t lead, or ones that jumped when touched. Their confidence increased with each obstacle they surmounted. The transformation was complete when they donned the traditional 4-H “whites” (uniform of white pants and shirt, green scarf, and hat) and stood tall and proud in the show ring.
My hope is that the lessons stay with them long after the animals are gone. I’m willing to bet a grand champion belt buckle that they will.
The San Mateo County fair runs through Sunday, June 19th.