It’s county fair season, and a day or two in those crowded midways is another kind of summer school. It’s not the animals I look forward to. I love the fair as a festival of humanity — a chance to people-watch and spark conversations that could only catch fire there.
For the past few summers, I have spent most of the fair week sitting at a table for a public health non-profit, offering free pamphlets about healthy relationships and family planning. We don’t sell anything — we’re just there to share information and resources. So, folks don’t veer from our booth to avoid a sales pitch. Instead, people often linger by our table just for a good chat. I sometimes feel like Lucy in the “Peanuts” cartoon — as if I’m sitting in a booth under a sign: “The Doctor is In.” I’m a just a doctor of sentences, though. And I’m not charging 5 cents, and I’m sure not offering psychiatric advice. I offer a listening ear, and that seems to be enough. Turns out, that despite all the deep-fried food at the fair, folks might hunger most for someone to talk to.
This year, teenagers from six different high schools — both public and private — hung out by the table to tell me exactly what they thought of their health education classes. They all said they wanted more education about relationships — for now and for the future. One self-described conservative teen said earnestly, “People make stupid mistakes sometimes ‘cause they just don’t know enough. I have.” I urged them to talk with their parents, teachers, and principals, about what they want to learn. I also encouraged them to run for student council. (OK, so sometimes I offer a bit of advice.)
Mostly, though, I listened — particularly to the kids, who so often have hours to while away at the fair … slow time like I remember from my endless, wonderfully boring summers of the 1970s. Kids have to hang out while siblings show their bunnies or sheep. Children of other vendors are often stuck, filling long, hot days by cruising by to collect free stuff from other booths. They fill their pockets with stickers and Jolly Ranchers and mints, and chat up the grown-ups at their tables. I was the beneficiary of their boredom.
A group of grade-school girls came by, and I had a long talk with a “Jr. Ambassador,” who was slender as a wax bean, with straw-blonde braids unraveling like twine. She wore an embossed silver belt buckle like a plate of armor across her narrow belly. I asked how her week was going. She shrugged, not making eye-contact. “I DQ’d on barrel racing, but I don’t care,” she said, picking at her cuticles. While I scrambled to figure out that DQ’d meant “disqualified,” her friend, with matching brown braids, patted her on the shoulder and leaned in to confide that her friend’s horse had knocked over a barrel early in the race, but that “it happens.” “They did real good, though.”
Kids with mucky cowboy boots light up when I ask about their animals. Brothers in identical rusty crew cuts told me about the steers they were showing. The older one, in a faded plaid shirt, was too modest to brag about his ribbon, but the younger brother boasted on his behalf. The older boy said a formal “Thank you very much,” when they took pieces of candy from our free bowl, and he elbowed his younger brother to echo in the exact same cadence. I thanked them for their beautiful manners and they blushed through their freckles.
A girl of around 10 with carefully coiffed puffs of hair, came by the booth by herself, studying the table and me for a minute and, taking a deep breath, said in a rush: “Is this table about cancer? My grandma has cancer. We’re all really sad.” What could I do but reach across the table and hold her two hands in mine, our eyes filling up, sharing a quietly suspended moment, even though Monster Trucks were roaring just outside.
On one of my last days at the fair, a bustling, maternal 8 year old swung by, tasked with watching her two little sisters, their wispy hair sticking to their faces and Tootsie Pops. The older child waved a crisp ten dollar bill importantly, and asked me if I knew where she could buy ribbon-cut potatoes. Indeed I did, and was I was tickled when they made a beeline back to my table with their basket of tendriled fries, setting it carefully on top of my pamphlets. While her sisters began cramming the potatoes into their sticky mouths, the oldest concentrated on plucking a long strand of potato out of the basket — carefully, so as to preserve the tendril curl — saying reverently: “For you.” I didn’t think about the sticky hands, or the grease now dotting the table. Instead, I listened to my hunger. “Thank you,” I said. I opened my mouth, watching their eager smiles, and, gratefully, I ate.