Barry Saunders

Saunders: Doubting NC State Fair judges deny girl’s talent

Wolfgang, you’d better sit yourself down. You know your daddy helped you with that.

Child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wouldn’t have stood a chance with some judges at the N.C. State Fair had he entered a competition there.

Mozart reportedly wrote his first symphony at eight, but I suspect the precocious composer would’ve been slapped down by some of the ribbon-presenters at the state fair. At the least, they would’ve probably demanded a signed affidavit stating that he wrote “Symphony No. 1 in E Flat Major.”

Even that – a signed affidavit – didn’t work for 9-year-old Olivia Welsh and her mother, Leah Welsh, when Olivia entered the cake-decorating competition at the State Fair, which concluded Sunday. Leah Welsh said she signed an affidavit stating that Olivia decorated the cake with minimal help from her. “I cut the slope into the styrofoam because it was too dangerous” for her to do alone, Leah said.

The judges weren’t biting, though, and disqualified Olivia’s entry with a note that read “questionable age.”

“They said it was ‘too good’” to be the product of a 9-year-old’s efforts, Welsh said. “What kind of message does that send to our youth – ‘Welcome to America, where we aim for mediocrity’?”

Right on. Damning kids with cynicism and low expectations may be the worst thing we can do to them, and questioning the little girl’s accomplishment absent evidence of cake-decorating chicanery is unconscionable.

It took me years – okay, seconds – to recover when a college professor publicly doubted one of my rare classroom accomplishments. Dr. Cason Hill asked me in front of the class if the answer I’d given when he called on me had been written in the book by someone else. He was so shocked that in this class of extremely bright Morehouse College students, I was the only one who answered it correctly.

I was devastated and livid. How dare he presume that someone else written the answer in the book.

Sure, someone had, but how dare he presume it, anyway.

The only help Olivia received was permissible, and Denise Walker thought questioning her decoration was reprehensible. Walker, competitive exhibits director for the fair, told me she was “greatly disturbed” when she saw the disqualifying note on Olivia’s entry.

“I removed it immediately,” Walker said of the note, “because I didn’t want the little girl to see that. It was inappropriate for them to question her age. I thought the judges had done her a disservice.”

Walker praised Olivia’s “fondant technique” – that’s cake-decorating talk – and said she wanted to ensure that the girl got at least an “honorable mention” for her sophisticated design.

Leah Welsh said Walker was “really, really great and very apologetic.”

Welsh said she has not heard from the judges who “called me a liar, and (Olivia) a liar.”

She also said her daughter took the snub much better than she did. “She was great,” Welsh said. “I almost threw a fit when I saw that her cake had just gotten discarded, pushed to the back with no recognition at all for her hard work.

“It wasn’t the talent I wanted recognized. It was the hard work. She worked on it for a month. She did it and re-did it and re-did it. She just said ‘Next time, I have to do better.’ She taught me a lesson.”

Next year, perhaps, she can teach some Doubting Thomas judges a lesson, too.