Lament from an Ex-Scout
The magic show
A woman in leather boots and thick socks padded onto stage. She skipped like a comet. Gentle branches embraced her at a distance. People huddled under the blanket of a warm night, in aisles, with an assembly of southern live oaks aching in their wisdom and invisible creatures warring in clear skies, hiding in hallowed trunks. Ants carried off carapaces. Snakes digested things. The wind whipped stretches of fire gathered in torches. The stairs, the platform, and the podium were thick wood. They resembled a meat, a marbled slab. Frogs rustled the leaves of quiet corners. In muted booms the woman’s thuds broke like an egg.
“AlaskaArizonaArkansasCaliforniaColoradoConnecticutDelawareFlorida,” she shouted. The words stampeded like animals from a barn fire. The audience settled into the darkness. They remembered their role, their part, in unison like a choir given a starting pitch. It was time to enjoy the show. Kids futzed around with sticks skinned by pocket knives. Others took to the stage to perform skits, deliver knock-knock jokes, and showcase talents. One child ate a a raw onion.
After the show we ambled home. We switched off the walkie talkies. A fog of insect repellent hung in the forest like perfume in a shopping mall. People, who are more aptly called campers at this point, removed their socks stiff with dirt and loaded them into shoes. They placed them tenderly by mats outside of tents. The campers ladled beans and weenies from a charred, black pot into bowls, cups, and mugs. They howled in a circle around the fire. The shoes must have sighed in relief as the mud began to crust around the laces.
Scouts was a feeding ground for peculiar rituals: campfire songs, comedy sketches, dramatic entrances, flags. Cubs, wolves, and webelos. The camel-brown two-piece uniforms, with sporty red neckerchiefs and shimmering fleur-de-lis slides, looked like a game of dress up. We loved to play but hated to talk. The game was too secret.
I was bad at King of the Hill. I was creative or distracted, I am not sure which. I brought a battery-powered laser tag kit to the campground. I asked grandma for it one Christmas. She acquiesced. I tie dyed shirts, designed the troop flag, and collect kindling for the fire. But I could not fire an arrow from the flossy string of a bow into the heart of hay bale. I was clumsy and unsure how to close one eye but not both.
Scouts remains a dear chapter of my childhood. I adored the stinging pleasure of fine salt mists pinching my face as I clung to the hot, slippery rubber of an inner-tube crashing against the Gulf of Mexico; the scrappy pick-up games of capture the flag in the church parking lot under buggy orange street lamps, getting nipped by mosquitoes; and the soundtrack of tremulous birds singing in treetops, adults grunting behind coffee thermoses like tired grizzlies while I fluttered around the picnic table smothered by an oversized hoodie, devouring pop tarts in looney, savoring bites.
The rituals seemed mostly clear to adults and other children. We pledged oaths and things, like in a Catholic Mass. I stood unconcerned, hypnotized by the shades of khaki and denim, the hardness of belts, the coldness of phones, beepers, and wallet-mounds in back pockets.
The U.S. flag, extravagantly flapping outside of log cabins, sand lots, and basketball stadiums, stood apart from their surroundings, gloriously incongruent. I remember having questions about the flag stowing ceremony. Creasing the fabric with medical precision looked difficult and tiring. Meanwhile, I was hungry for lunch.
Scouts, to my memory, was a program built around American duty, survival, service, honor, order. It is a product of the early twentieth century. The United Nations had not yet been established.
How relevant are their concerns today, facing the issues of now? We are no longer the archipelago of disconnected states trying to out shine each other but rather a global village.
Memorizing state names, shooting rifles, and carving sticks have a place somewhere. But when I imagine activities that constitute meaningful learning experiences, eating beans is far down the list.
The parts of scouts I most enjoyed were creative, imaginative, questioning, playful, and a little rebellious.
King of the hill — play-fighting for scraps of land — seemed bullish to me. Toughness, authority, and proving myself all but escaped. I had no appetite for alpha status, and I had trouble with lines: reading between them, walking in them, writing on them.
Today, I get the sense that the education we need more of does not live on a line. It cannot be taught. It involves divergent thinking. We are a generation unsatisfied.
A speculative future
I like to ask my students, if you could make your own school or camp what would it look like? They say, “students build robots. Or tree houses without tools” They say, “it would be more diverse.” Or, sometimes they say, “students learn how to tie knots, go fishing, normal camp stuff.”
My conclusion is that the future of scouts will look different. In fact, this has already started to take hold. I started this thinking, this reflection on my own camp experiences, because of a recent experience I had facilitating a camp where kids learn to pitch apps, not tents.
“Think different,” aside from being a slogan, it seems, has become a virtue. We depend on solutions that have not yet been conceived, and that will take some negotiation — some trust — between one generation and the next.
Our plan for survival does not live in a book, and there are no badges for the skills we will need.