To assess: to sit beside

The pandemic has a way of stretching, warping, and shrinking time into a difficult to read, but strangely telling, ordered memory. Since I was nine years old, I have been showing Brown Swiss dairy cows with the 4-H and have spent nearly 10 years at fairs with families from farming backgrounds. Although it was just over a year ago, showing cows feels like a part of my distant childhood. But I wonder if the distance that my memories of cow-showing seem to possess is the result of the pandemic closing all fairs thus cow shows this summer, or if it is a result of a broadened awareness of issues in the farming industry.

The reason I say cow showing seems like a thing of the past is because of how faded and childlike my memories of fairs seem to be. Certainly a combination of lack of sleep and sweltering heat, or as hot as it gets in mid-August in Vermont, could cause one’s memories to take on a nostalgic light. I can remember sitting, sleepily, beneath the curled head of the heifer I worked with and listening to the noises of my friends, fairgoers, angry mothers, and misbehaving children passing behind me. I remember laughing generously with my long-time friends who I only really see in the summer when we gather to show our cows. These memories, although poignant, seem like a figment of my childhood because they are superficial in their meaning to me. I cherish these moments because they are times of great friendship, adventure, and joy, but I also recognize in each of these memories a lack of knowledge or understanding that characterizes them as the memories of a child and not of an adult. There is one memory that stands apart from the rest. It is partially because it’s a much more recent memory, but it also a time I realized that I had stepped into an awareness that was essentially different than my younger self’s. We, a motley crew of 4-Hers at the Addison County Fair, were sitting in the show ring as one of our 4-H leaders gave the annual presentation on proper fair behavior. At one point, a leader told us to make sure that we refrain from hitting our animals as much as possible because the “PETA people” would be watching and ready to destroy the farms that we were representation. She had chuckled, and sitting in the front row next to two of some of my best friends, I was struck with the statement and decidedly frowned in response.

I’m sure I had heard countless statements such as this one in the past, but this time I didn’t smile along. This memory marks a time where I challenged the people, the experience, the understanding that I loved and was comfortable with. And it seems to carry a slightly more mature weight than my characteristically young earlier memories. Such a miniscule moment, but one that holds such significance, was the product of my first year in What’s the Story? and demonstrates the important growth that the course helps its students navigate. In intentionally encouraging youth to examine their lives and communities, to then seek answers to questions about things that seem wrong or don’t make sense by engaging directly with their community members, to considering how they present (comprehend) the information they gather is a learned process that extends far beyond the course’s year-long time frame. It teaches young people, in a critical time in the development of their ideologies and beliefs, how to be contentious and civically engaged community members.

This continual process of questioning, discovery, comprehension, and back to questioning is not only evident in my first year as a student in WTS but in a more macroscopic view as I enter my third year in the program. In eighth grade, my memories of the dairy industry were still entirely intact as filled with innocence, ignorance. I spent the year questioning what it meant that I was involved with an industry that contributed to the veal industry. I questioned if I could love and support my farming friends and the ag-heavy 4-H while creating a film that wanted to target the dairy industry as evil. In my second year, I discovered that I didn’t need to designate an evil and a good. By using basic ethics, I found a framework where I could present issues rather than spout bold and simple accusations. And while I feel that the term “comprehension” rings of a finality that seems, without a lifetime of knowledge, impossible to achieve, this third year has brought a sense of understanding and a method of research that has shaped how I view myself in society. All of these things are a product of What’s the Story’s? teachings, but as a senior, the magnitude of this program’s impact was entirely unexpected.

Maybe it’s the pandemic that has a way of stretching, warping, and shrinking time and memories, but maybe that’s just the character of memories themselves. I wonder how I will look back on my beliefs and experiences now in twenty years. But I am relieved and incredibly appreciative of the framework that WTS have provided to venture into the coming years.

Lena Ashooh

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