By Daniel Silliman
The moment the snake touches skin, the girl's face changes.
Alexis Williamson, 10, stares at the black king snake as the 4-H instructor walks down a row of students sitting on the floor. She stares while the snake's tongue flickers, tasting the air; stares while the boys hold the snake in their hands and while the instructor watches her way. Williamson holds her hands out, upturned and cupped like a bowl, waiting to feel the black king snake.
The moment she does, her face is transformed. Her face lights up. She smiles and looks like she's been struck by joy, by some transcendent discovery. The students are seated in a circle at Fortson 4-H Center in Hampton, with their hands out to hold the snake, the moment they receive the unblinking animal, is a moment of sheer exhilaration.
At the Fortson 4-H Center, "hands on" is a central and very literal idea. As students from 30 different schools go through the Environmental Education Program, at the 77-acre facility behind the Atlanta Motor Speedway, they get to look, touch and ask questions.
Sarah Hilger, program director, said the urban kids are often scared of the wildlife at first, but quickly become excited and want to know everything's name. "They ask 'What's that?' 80 million times a day, and they just want to know what everything is," Hilger said. "They like to know what the animals are called. They also want to know why we don't name the animals in the lab. They're not pets, so there's no Larry the Frog, but I think that's good because then the students learn he's a treefrog, not Larry. But, you know, you show them a yellow-bellied turtle and the first thing they say is, 'What are we going to name it?'"
It's mostly fifth- and sixth- graders going through the experience of the environmental education at Fortson, off of Lower Woolsey Road, though the 4-H takes both younger students and older ones.
On Tuesday afternoon, it was the fifth- and sixth-graders, Clayton County students who are part of their schools' 4-H clubs. The 36 children split up, half of them doing team-building exercises in a field -- where one boy worried the yellow 4-H clover on his shirt would attract bees -- and the other half touching and learning about Georgia's wild animals.
Laura Garrett, the adult leading and supervising the 4-Hers, said the club is often perceived as something more rural, something associated with county fairs, but it's really dedicated to helping children build confidence and leadership.
Juliet Walls said that's what 4-H did for her. Now a 4-H program assistant, she got started years ago when she was recruited by her older sister for a service project. Walls said 4-H gave her public speaking opportunities, she took them and they changed her. "I was so nervous about getting up in front of people," Walls said. "I was so shy, when I was little, and then I joined 4-H."
The young 4-Hers, Tuesday afternoon, were learning their own life lessons. Lendberg Bond, III, an 11-year-old with a short mohawk and oval glasses, jumped up from his seat when a gopher tortoise came charging at him. The tortoise wasn't going to eat him, the instructor said, but just wanted to get to the door and go for a walk and a dig outside.
"What do you think this guy eats?" said Brian Bently, 4-H instructor, as he held the tortoise up in the air for all the students to see.
One yelled out, "salad!" Another shouted, "plankton!" A third, a boy who answered everything confidently, said, "grass!"
"No," Bently said. "He eats cats. He chases them down on his stubby little legs and eats them -- no, just kidding. He eats vegetables and fruit. He likes the sugar in fruit, just like you."
And somebody said, "What is his name?"