Today was the first day of the 2010 Minnesota State Fair.
If I had to choose one word to describe the State Fair, I’d pick “Ugh.” I hate big crowds. Add some 30,000-watt speakers, miles of streets lined by vendors hawking their wares, mix in a bit of scorching sun, a few hives’ worth of hungry hornets, some screaming children and the faint smell of manure, and you’ve pretty much got my vision of hell.
That’s why I don’t know what possessed me to sign up as a volunteer. I guess it sounded interesting, the way they described it: I’d be guiding kids through a miniature farm and teaching them about agriculture. Or animal husbandry. I don’t know … the details escape me. But my friend VJ had signed up, so I thought we’d at least have fun.
I’d imagined spending four hours explaining where eggs come from (“Can you say ‘cloaca’? I knew you could!”), or maybe teaching kids how to milk a cow.
Instead, I found myself standing inside a makeshift shed — the kind in which people usually store lawnmowers and other implements of horticultural destruction — as an endless stream of disoriented children and their socially stunted parents poured in.
Inside the shed with me and VJ was a large prosthetic sheep. Our job was to stand on either side of the pseudo-sheep, greet the children, and help them complete their task. “Do you have some corn for the sheep?” we’d ask. “Put some corn in the bucket — just a handful. Save some corn for the cow.” Assuming that the child completed the task, we’d then hand them a Zip-Lock bag with a little tuft of wool inside. “And the sheep says ‘thank you’ by giving you some wool,” we’d intone, in the kind of singsong voice one reserves for children and small, nervous dogs.
Of course, the majority of the children were unable to complete this simple task. We might as well have been asking them to perform cold fusion or dissect a flea.
Many of the kids were overstimulated. They’d enter the shed and their faces would go blank. “Put some corn in the bucket,” we’d helpfully suggest. “Just a handful. Save some for the cow.” Eventually, most of the kids would catch on and grab a handful of corn.
Then came the next hurdle: A surprising number lacked the coordination to open their hands and actually release the corn. So we’d have to coach them: “Open your hand and let go of the corn,” we’d say. Sometimes it would be necessary to demonstrate by making a fist and then opening my hand. Finally, the corn would drop. “Good job! And the sheep says ‘thank you’ by giving you some wool.”
A few kids abstained from the activity altogether. I think they just didn’t see the point of “feeding” corn to an outsized fiberglass sheep. I was with them, on that one.
And so it went. “Do you have some corn for the sheep?” “Yup, put it there — right in the bucket. That’s right, open your hand. Let go of the corn.” “Good job!” “And the sheep says ‘thank you’ by giving you some wool.” It was relentless.
After about two hours, I was starting to get hoarse. “I’ll just say hello and let them figure it out,” I thought to myself. That resolution lasted for precisely 18 seconds. That’s how long it took for the next glassy-eyed child to appear, clutching a handful of corn. “Do you have some corn for the sheep?” I asked. “Put a handful in the bucket. Just a handful — save some for the cow.” Oh. My. God.
To my dismay, most of the parents were of no help whatsoever. They’d stand behind their progeny and watch passively as little Sophie engaged in a protracted bout of Greco-Roman wrestling with her Zip-Lock bag. Finally, she’d succeed in prying it open, only to send corn flying all over the small shed, which would briefly resemble the interior of a snow globe. “Do you have some corn for the sheep?” I’d ask, as the tiny missiles pelted my shins. Of course you do. A bunch of it just went in my shoe.
Of all the useless parents, one stood out for me an VJ. I can’t describe her physically, because I didn’t get a good look. But her voice reminded me of a rusty-hinged gate. “Dump all of your corn in there,” she was telling her child. “Just a handful,” VJ and I countered, “save some for the cow.” The child wasn’t getting it, so the mother persisted. “Dump all of your corn in the bucket,” she commanded. “Just a handful,” VJ and I instructed. We weren’t getting through. The cow would just have to do without.
At one point poor VJ — who happens to be pregnant, and who may be rethinking her desire to have children — needed a break. She asked me if I’d be OK by myself while she went looking for a porta-potty. “Sure,” I nodded.
No sooner did she walk away than a wave of humanity surged into the shed. I clung to the prosthetic sheep like a shipwrecked sailor might cling to a raft. “Do you have some corn for the sheep?” I asked the masses in a feeble voice. But no one heard me, because my voice was drowned out by a tape-recorded BAAAAAAAAA that blasted out of the speakers in the ceiling.
To my eternal gratitude, VJ soon returned and we resumed our routine. “Do you have some corn for the sheep?”
It wasn’t until the very end of my shift that I understood why the kids were having such a hard time. One little guy actually asked me for help, so I knelt to attend to his baggie. That’s when I saw the exhibit from a kid’s perspective.
It was dark down there, near the floor. The fiberglass sheep towered menacingly, elevated on its fiberglass platform. I couldn’t see the contents of the bucket, which was also elevated on the platform. I couldn’t see the posters on the walls with the instructions. And all I could hear was the endless shuffling of feet on the corn-littered floor, punctuated by random BAAAAAAAAA noises from the speakers in the ceiling. No wonder the kids looked like zombies!
After four hours, a benevolent angel of mercy appeared. “Here’s the next volunteer,” she said. “You’re free to go.”
VJ and I ran from the shed and into the sunlight.
I was so tired from my ordeal that I just wanted to go home. Here are a few of things I saw as I left the grounds. Farewell, State Fair.