It’s been my experience, both as a participant and parent of a participant, that little builds character like 4H.

Back in the ‘80s when I was a member of Calamus, Iowa-based 4H group, the Marvelous Maids, my mother was usually at the helm of my projects, projects usually confined to sewing, zucchini bread and carrots.

My zucchini bread is a Mueller family recipe and was a definite blue-ribbon winner. Since then, I’ve altered it with walnuts and made it a muffin mix which is popular with running friends for the combined carbs and protein.

The original recipe, however, was used by my daughter Moira for her first club show a couple years ago. She easily carried on our family tradition of blue-ribbon baking.

I can’t remember baking anything else for club show, but do recall a last-minute garden entry in which I pulled a few pathetic carrots from the garden, slapped them on a plate and headed off. I’m pretty sure they may have won a “white.”

My projects generally went along with whatever type of crafting my mom was doing at the time. There was her latch-hook phase during which I completed a wall-hanging of Lucy from Peanuts. This phase abruptly ended after one of my younger sisters grabbed Mom’s hook off the table and shoved it in her eye, snagging the small, pink nodule at the inner corner. (Fortunately, my sister was fine, but Mom? Probably scarred for life.)

Her real forte was sewing and while Mom could wield a mighty needle and thread, whenever she set in to prepare me for the next sewing project, she never failed to remind me of the time she sewed over (and through) her finger in Home Ec.

This story cemented in me a healthy fear of sewing machines and thusly, my years in 4H were not many.

Of the two sewing projects I completed, I remember a matching short outfit in which the shorts were solid red and the red-trimmed short-sleeved shirt sported a complimentary watermelon pattern. It was pretty rad.

What wasn’t “rad” was the AWFUL fashion show in which I, Tami (Diercks) Nielsen and Carie (Sexton) Nelson had to model our creations in front of a judge, our mothers and whoever else enjoyed the sick pleasure of watching young girls suffer.

I’m guessing I was roughly 12-years-old and had there been a table nearby to flip, I surely would’ve done so. “Modeling?! Nobody said anything about MODELING?! This is so unfair!”

(Whenever Jimmy Fallon does his “Ewww!” skit on The Late Show, I’m 100 percent certain he’s channeling my 12-year-old self.)

Truth be told, I was likely informed of the fashion show aspect of my sewing project weeks in advance, but given my young self’s tendency to space out and forget uncomfortable or boring details, I stood gawking at the adults around me, ready to burst into hot, steaming tears.

We were told to “relax” and “have fun!” But even now, I challenge anyone to prove to an awkward, pre-teen girl how sashaying before family, friends and strangers can be anything other than terrifying.

I’m not sure how, but I made it through. Tami, ever the seamstress star, trumped Carie and I with some fabulously complicated creation. Both Carie and I knew Tami would be chosen to represent the Marvelous Maids at the county club show. The real question was, “Who would be second?”

Turns out, my pouty emotional “duck-face” was not what the judges were looking for. Carie, in her baby blue matching shirt and shorts, smiled and bounced happily before the audience. Using a tennis racket prop, she charmed one and all and was crowned “runner up.”

Was I bummed? Probably, but let’s be honest. Who wants a moody adolescent grumping about the county clubshow cat walk? The point of these fashion shows were (and probably remain) not to simply show-off one’s sewing ability and/or fashion sense, but to look fear in the face and suck it up! To persevere with shoulders back, chin up, eyes bright! To exhibit the maturity, the “moxy” that 4H instills in its members!

So to all the members of Clinton County’s 4H clubs, I encourage you to trust in the process of character building and go to it! The coming week will be filled with experiences both nerve-wracking and exhilarating so embrace it! Let the fun, the hesitation and even the fear that comes with having your efforts scrutinized by knowledgeable judges mold you into stronger, braver individuals. Have a great Fair Week!

Originally published 12 July 2014 in The Observer.

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