It was a partially-cloudy, partially-sunny, partially-windy, partially-calm, partially-cool, partially-warm day in the North Dakota badlands and I sat at a small lunch table in the school cafeteria in the middle of a little cowboy town. I had a name tag attached to my floral shirt. It said “Judge.” I had a binder, a pencil, a stack of papers, a sweat bead beginning to form on one of my eyebrows…and fifty kids’ hope of the grand champion ribbon hanging on my “expert” opinion.
The hand of the clock moved to indicate it was 8:00 am in this cowboy town on the edge of the buttes. It was 8:00 and it was time to get serious. Because this was the moment every country, crafty, green thumbed, talented kid in the county had been getting ready for all summer.
The cafeteria began to buzz, a little more energy walking through the double doors with each passing hour. Kids in white shirts and boots that squeaked on the tile floor rushed around carrying homemade quilts, photos, plants, and bugs pinned to foam board while the the white and green clover patch hung proudly above their hearts.
The hearts they have pledged to greater loyalty.
Meanwhile, my loyal heart was breaking.
Don’t be alarmed though. That’s just what happens when I am face to face with a young man in a button up shirt and glasses who has lugged a ten pound pot filled with petunias from his family’s farm thirty miles away only to plop it down in front of me on that cafeteria table, the top of his head barely peeking over the red, leafy plants, and begin to explain the method he followed to make the plant grow so lusciously large…all the while poking at the dirt and trying to put the chunk of plastic that had fallen off of the pot on the long journey back in its proper place.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “This is about the plant not the pot…and the plant looks great!”
He instantly relaxed and went on about how he made sure to keep an eye out for his plants because they have some dogs full of mischief at their farm, and how he used Miracle Grow soil this time, soil that absorbs water if you accidentally give the plant too much. And that is what he learned.
That and to be careful in the transport.
It was a blue ribbon plant, a blue ribbon interview, a blue ribbon kid…it was going to be a blue ribbon day.
Ahhh, this was 4-H at its finest. One of the last truly wholesome things in the world and I got to be a part of it.
Although, I’m not so sure that I was their best choice, you know, given my soft spot for children who have put their loyal hearts, clear-thinking heads, service-oriented hands, and health to work all summer on giant latch hooking projects, wildflower collections, a terrarium in an aquarium, a leather tooled pouch, and a cross for their father’s grave.
How do I chose a favorite?
How do I chose a best when I am dealing with the best–the kids who dedicate their summer to learning, to doing, to accomplishing something meaningful to showcase, to pass along and share?
What do I say to the young lady smack dab in the middle of teenage-dom who presented me with a photo of her perfectly posed red border collie and smiled with pure innocence and delight as she talked about his puppy antics, his cow-dog capabilities, his big, loving personality and why she likes to photograph him? How do I tell her that while she was explaining all of the different scenes she photographed before choosing this, her favorite, a photo of her pet that will go on her wall, she was single handedly restoring my hope for the future of her generation?
Blue ribbon. That’s what I say. Blue, blue, blue.
And how do I tell the lankly, shy fifteen-year-old that the story he was telling me about walking the ditches with his dad to capture a photo of a perfectly constructed, perfectly vibrant, perfectly lovely wild sunflower with the old camera he was given was giving me a lump in my throat? How do I tell him that, from now on, every patch of wild sunflowers I see will tempt me to look for the most symmetrical and most pristine plant out there…and it will reminded of him?
Blue. Blue. Blue ribbon for you.
And what to I say to the little girl in glasses who had been waiting in line for a half an hour to proudly show me her purple flowers in a purple flower pot? How do I tell her that yes, her flowers are lovely, but her personality and manners and respectful and lovely nature will take her far in gardening and in life? How do I tell her that she’s going to grow up and it’s going to get a little hard sometimes, but to always remember this moment and that her favorite part about gardening was getting to play in the dirt?
Blue I say. Blue ribbon!
And what about the sixteen-year-old girl who showed an amazingly artistic photo of a trip she took to the big city while also showing me a zest, love and excitement for adventure and new experiences along the way. How do I ask her to send me a postcard from Paris when she gets there, a shout out when she’s barrel racing at the National High School Rodeo Finals, a photo from the top of Mt. Everest?
Well, I guess I tell her to take more pictures, take all the pictures she can…and she’s got herself a blue ribbon.
Oh, I am hopeless. Absolutely hopeless. And apparently with a little experience it doesn’t get better. See, I judged 4-H for the first time a few weeks ago at my home county’s fair. Pre-teen photography. I was blown away. I don’t know if it is the new digital camera technology or the eye for detail these kids have because, you know, they are a little closer to the ground and everything, but there were photos in this group that I would hang on my wall with pride, that I would submit to contests, that I would put in a calendar. I wanted to stand up and cheer.
Needless to say, there was enough blue ribbons to go around. And they were all deserving.
And I slept good that night.
Which brings me to this.
In the middle of the buzz and chaos yesterday a little girl with a Beezus haircut and a froggy voice stood in line for a good fifteen minutes to meet with me. She was holding a long tub filled with dirt and a few leafy plants on skinny stems that waved and bowed as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Barely big enough to wrap her arms around her pot she carefully set her project down in front of her and cleared her throat. And while she was explaining to me how she found these beans and planted them and placed them next to the window in her house to get some sunlight, I examined the beans, wiped the sweat from my eyebrow and whimpered silently to myself.
Because this girl was adorable.
A specimen of a 4-H kid with the white shirt, the blue pants, the clover patch, the bubbly spirit, the perfect posture…
But her beans lacked the same grand champion outfit and stature, in fact, one of her beans was broken, held up by masking tape.
But this girl, this adorable little girl loved her beans. Who was I to tell her they aren’t perfect? And did it really matter anyway? But what would it say to the other blue ribbon winners if a broken bean got a blue ribbon too? What type of standard would that set? How was I to be taken seriously as a judge ever again? I liked this gig. I loved the kids. I want to be invited back but the bean is broken!!!? Where is the manual that explains what to do in a situation like this: cute kid, perfectly dressed, perfectly passionate about gardening, and a broken bean!
What’s a softy former 4-H nerd to do, ask her when the bean broke? April? August? Did it matter? Can a taped bean plant even continue to grow? I should Google that….
Eeekkk, I crumbled.
I crumbled and wrote her a note about all of the things she did right, all of the wonderful things she was made of and all of the things she could do to improve her bean’s future…and then I gave her a red ribbon.
She smiled as I handed her the note, put her tiny arms around the bean pot and skipped over to her mother.
I melted in a big puddle on the ground and told myself it was for the best. A learning experience. She will come back next year with blue ribbon beans for sure…
but I may never sleep again.
I imagine you have never given much thought to the inside pressures of the average 4-H judge have you?
Well now you know.
And if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find my medication…