The heart of 4-H
I saw her from across the stands. I could tell. You can always tell.
She seemed quiet – not her usual hob-knobbing with everyone around her. Our eyes met up across the stands, and we both nodded in acknowledgment. But it was her expression.
It’s always the expression. And I wondered if she knew that I knew.
This mother had raised her grandson, and it was his last day of selling livestock at the county 4-H and FFA fair. His senior year had been full of all those “last things,” and this experience was one of them. For me as one of his club leaders, the end of the sale meant another 4-H year was over. But for her, it meant the end of an era that had meant so much to them. And the welling tears in her eyes said all that words could not.
I was never in 4-H as a kid, but all three of our children are nine-year veterans of that–the world’s largest youth organization. It was an important part of their lives, especially the county fair. They would spend entire days there with their friends, washing and grooming animals for the shows, seeing what there was to see, getting into water fights, eating their fill of sugar, making new friends and strengthening friendships that already existed.
Those 4-H days weren’t always fun, tough. There were last-minute static exhibit preparations just before judging day. There were painful projects our children started, then learned they did not enjoy–but still needed to finish; constant reminders that time was running out, getting kids to fill out goal cards, and oh, the record keeping paper work.
It would have been easier to ride a bull bareback than get the kids to do that.
There were animals to break to lead, which took time and effort. And if you started that process the week before fair, as sometimes happened around here, it was a four-alarm crisis. I’ve watched our sons ski in the manure–pulled behind a calf with its own plans. I’ve seen our kids slammed into the sides of buildings by calves with attitudes. Luckily, the worst that ever came from that was a cracked cell phone screen and some torn blue jeans.
There were livestock weigh-in days, fair check-in days, facing the judges, exhilaration from a blue or purple ribbon and the disappointment of a red or white ribbon; monthly 4-H meetings, working on static projects, club service projects all year, and presentations to do.
Then there was getting up early on 4-H sale day to see a truck parked outside the show arena and the auctioneer doing his thing inside, and brushing an animal for the last time before they hear their name called to bring their animal into the ring.
Some 4-H’ers cry privately, and some don’t care if they openly show how much they care before they remove those halters for the last time. Emotions run high when everyone is exhausted from the busy and stressful week behind them. Even for parents and grandparents.
Our children are eight and 10 years out of 4-H, but it’s still important to them. Now they come to watch, purchase kids’ projects at the sales, and encourage. In that way I can see that the 4-H pledge remains part of them, even as adults. They are lucky to have had the experience.
As a mother, I understand the heart of that grandmother as she watched her grandson show his livestock there for the last time as a 4-H’er.
Her heart wept. It was a good run, and she was going to miss all of this.
4-H kids know the words. “I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty; my hands to larger service and my health to better living–for my club, my community, my country and my world.”
But of all of the H’s in that pledge, perhaps the heart is the most fragile.
That mother understood. And so did I.
Karen Schwaller is a Farm News correspondent from Milford. Reach her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.karenschwaller.com.