Coed Scouting comes to America

DSCN7183On Wednesday, Oct. 11, the Boy Scouts of America announced plans to become a coeducational scouting organization, following in the footsteps of many national scouting organizations worldwide. Admittedly, there are some flaws in the plan, the most glaring of which was that it appeared to be wholly uncoordinated with the Girl Scouts of America (indeed, it almost seemed to be something of a hostile takeover of their mission to teach girls to become better citizens). But the goal of including girls in the BSA organization still seems to me worthy of applause.

My father, who grew up in the 1950s, would have probably hesitated to agree with this sentiment, at least at first. Earlier this year, when I first described the scouting organization that I wanted to take my daughter Albina to, the ZHP (Związek Harcerstwa Polskiego), as being coed, he was surprised. “That’s scary,” he remarked.

To understand his initial trepidation about coed Scouting, you’d have to go back to his childhood. Not long after his family moved to West Richland, a small town that had just been organized across the Yakima River from the so-called “Atomic City” of Richland, Washington, my father joined a new troop that met at the Lutheran church just across the street from his home. Most of the activities seemed to be centered around the specific needs of the Scoutmaster’s son, a kid a couple years younger than my father was, but the troop nonetheless kept my dad and his newfound friends busy. When that troop disbanded shortly after the son’s Eagle court-of-honor (he would be the only Eagle that his troop would produce), my father then discovered cars, and then girls. This led to all-too-usual teenager troubles. With that in mind, the fact that mixing boys and girls into a single Scouting organization would raise his eyebrows wasn’t really that unpredictable.

Nonetheless, his hesitation to embrace the idea was short-lived. A bit later, after my daughter’s first school camping trip, when I reiterated to my father my intention of encouraging both my daughter and her younger brother to go into Scouts in Poland, he had a different two-word response, “Good plan.” (These were the last words he passed along to me on the subject; he died a couple months later.)

For me, personally, Scouts proved to be an important way to connect with my father. Much like he did, I found a flyer inviting boys to join a Cub Scout pack in Pacific, the small South King County town in western Washington where we were living, and while I earned my Bobcat, Wolf, and Bear badges, he began to take an interest. By the time I was earning my Webelos Activity Pins and my Arrow of Light, he had become a fully involved dad.

As it had my father, Scouts protected me from typical teenager troubles that kids in the 1970s and 1980s often got into. It allowed me to associate with kids of good character, learn leadership, and develop those strong values that are important to being a good citizen of America. Respect for the flag wasn’t just simply standing when the anthem played with your hand over your heart (or with a salute if you were in uniform), it was appreciating the values that the flag represented. Even today, I would probably never burn the flag in protest, and would always stand in respect for it. However, I also learned that the flag represents the values that went into ideas like the First Amendment, which guaranteed the right to free speech, free assembly, and to worship as I see fit. I admit, it took some time before I could comfortably defend the right of someone to use or abuse a flag that they owned as an act of protest, but today I fully understand the need to be able to do so thanks to having to explain what the Bill of Rights means while obtaining my Citizenship in the Nation merit badge.

200709261657b ToothofTimeRidge

The Tooth of Time as I last saw it in September 2007. Photo by Ben M. Angel

I remember many other important lessons: learning to find the internal strength to help defend my best friend against bullies while inventorying our community businesses as part of our work toward completing the Citizenship in the Community merit badge, and learning to stand by that same friend even when he proved too terrified of the wind to spend the night atop Philmont’s Tooth of Time. I remember learning to swim and canoe, and to appreciate the chance to paddle past the historical nuclear reactors and ghost town ruins that stood as sentinels along the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River. I remember completing a 50-miler with the help of friends when I didn’t have the strength to hike the entire Press Trail into Washington State’s Olympic National Park, getting warmed up from hypothermia after a freezing night in a poorly-made snow cave, and learning the absolute value of traveling in parties of three while being rescued from Mt. Rainier’s Wonderland Trail after failing to wear long underwear beneath a woolen pair of pants (a painful mistake I would never make again). I could recite the rules that one needs to master when getting one’s tote-and-chip card, the distance one needs to have between a campfire and nearby brush (and the great fun of building a fire that roared taller than most of the nearby trees), and of course the ten essentials that you need to carry in order to safely hike out in the wild. I understood what low-impact camping was, and how to leave a campsite looking better than when I arrived.

Most importantly, I knew what it meant to do one’s duty to God and country, to other people, and to one’s self. When I inevitably would slip up as an adult (being more human than machine), I never lost sight of the need to try to satisfy these duties, no matter the situation I was in or how badly I messed up, and to never give up on doing so. Though my 1981 National Jamboree patrol would jokingly march to Tom Lehrer’s “Be Prepared”, I learned the importance of doing my good deed when everyone stopped watching me. In short, Scouts taught me to never stop trying to be a good person.

It is important to note, having said all of these things, that none of these Boy Scout lessons required me to be a boy. They could easily be taught to a girl, say my daughter. If I had gone through a mixed-gender scouting boyhood, I might also have learned to more easily integrate into such mixed-gender professional environments as a young adult. I do hope that I’ve fully caught on to this necessary life skill (if I’ve learned anything it’s that one should never get too sure), but I see how removing the gender segregation from even such potentially awkward situations as camping, hiking, or canoeing might prevent another Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, or Roger Ailes emerging from among our future leaders.

The plan that the Boy Scouts of America has embraced will allow girls to enter the organization not only as an Explorer (a program that has been available to girls since I was in Scouts back in the 1970s), but also as a Cub Scout (as early as age 7) starting sometime next year (I didn’t see an exact date in their press release, though 2018 is only a couple months away as of this writing). It also will allow girls who complete the program (including execution of an Eagle Project – an activity that for most of those attaining this highest rank is their first attempt at project management) to earn their Eagle Scout in 2019.

Polish_Scouting_AssociationWe are still looking at the ZHP as the organization that will introduce our daughter into the world of international Scouting. But if the future ever does bring us to a place where my kids can interact in person with other fellow Scouts within the BSA organization, I would be proud to see my 8-year-old daughter and my 4-year-old son follow me in becoming the second and third Eagle Scouts in our little family of Angels.

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