August 14, 2012

What I Learned From My Time in the Boy Scouts

Boy ScoutsI was in the Boy Scouts for a couple years. It was my dad's idea. While I was initially willing to give it a try, it did not take long for me to learn that it was not for me. Unfortunately, my dad "did not raise a quitter," and so I was not permitted to leave until a couple years later. He had been a Scout in his youth and found it to be a positive experience. I just needed to stick with it, and it would surely be a positive experience for me. I was 13 or 14 when I was finally allowed to quit, and I've never had any regrets about doing so.

By the time I left, being associated with the Boy Scouts was one of the least cool things a 13 or 14 year-old boy could do. I tried as hard as I could to keep it a secret from my peers in school, but this proved impossible. And so one of the downsides of being in the Scouts was regularly being made fun of at school. Had I enjoyed being a Scout, this would not have been a big deal. But having to be the butt of jokes for doing something I didn't want to do in the first place was not much fun.

One of the things I learned from my time in the Scouts was that I was not very good at many of the skills White men in the U.S. are supposed to posses. I suppose I already knew this about myself, but the Scouts rubbed my face in it to make sure I wouldn't forget. I was never going to be an outdoorsman, and this means that I would never be a "real man." I didn't like bugs, the idea of harming innocent animals, or camping in the rain. I was not particularly good with my hands, and while I did learn to tie a few knots, whittle, fish, and operate a canoe, I had already learned to do most of these things before joining the Scouts. The main thing the Scouts did was show me that I was never going to be very good at them. It would be fair to say that my time in the Scouts left me absolutely certain that I was not cut out for military service. I suppose that was a valuable lesson.

Another lesson I picked up from the Scouts was that boys who were different from the majority in some way were meant to be bullied. I experienced this myself as both a victim and a passive observer who did not intervene but should have. I'd certainly seen bullying before but not in such a systematic top-down manner. I had also not seen it condoned by adults like it was here. And I do not recall previously experiencing anything like the pressure to join in I remember from the Scouts. Years later, I would look back on this experience when learning about the dangers of conformity.

When I see today that the Scouts are continuing to be intolerant of gays and atheists, it does not surprise me one bit. Atheism did not seem to be on anyone's radar all those years ago when I was in the Scouts, but I heard more homophobic slurs there than anywhere else I can recall (including the junior high school playground and high school football locker room). Unless things have improved considerably, it is difficult for me to imagine many gay or atheist boys having a positive experiences in the Scouts. But until the organization changes its antiquated policies, I suppose we won't really know.
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