This week Girl Scouts celebrated its 100th Anniversary. I am one of those people who actually sang happy birthday. Why? Because Girl Scouts changed my life. And almost cost me my life at least 50 times.
Maybe it’s not completely accurate to say that–the part about it changing my life. Really, it was the awesome group of people I was with and the things that we got to do that changed my life.
My mom was my Girl Scout leader. She. Was. Awesome. Skiing? Rappelling? Camping? Sledding? Cooking an apple pie with a cardboard box and aluminum in November? Going to Switzerland on cookie money? She was the classic believer in girls–and she of all people saw plenty of reasons not to believe in us.
Mom was joined by several other awesome moms and leaders and a gaggle of girls. Some girls came and went through the years, and others stayed all the way through until we graduated High School together. Age six to age 18. how often does that happen? The diverse mix of girls became some of my fastest friends.This post goes out to the girls and women who made my childhood special, then helped me grow into a young woman.
While we were in the moment, I heard the mantra: “Girl Scouts is about empowering girls.” I was six. “Empowering girls? Why would I need empowered? We are just doing stuff everybody does.” Now that I’ve had a few years to reflect and actually eat Girl Scout cookies instead of sell them, I realize that some things we got to do really did empower us. The girls I was in Girl Scouts with are all living awesome lives today. Some have graduated from excellent schools and are placed in jobs. Others have followed their dreams across the country. Some, like me, have followed their dreams around the world. What made our times so special? It’s way too difficult to express. But I can let you know a few things Girl Scouts taught me.
Lesson No. 1: If you have to pee badly enough, you will use the latrines.
They were gross. They have now been replaced with wonderful wash houses, but the ones that were there when I first went to camp made it infinitely preferable to go outside. At this point in my life I’ve used the bathroom while on a moving second class train car over a squatter hole spattered with human waste in India. I can tell you: The latrines smelled worse. They had no electricity, so they were pitch black dark. The moms had to remind us to check under the lids for huge spiders that liked to nest there, or for the snakes that sometimes liked to coil there. When we would first arrive at camp, the girls assigned to cleaning the latrines had to sweep them out and wipe down everything. Often, there were 3-inch wolf spiders and wasp nests in there ( the wikipedia entry for wolf spiders describes them by saying that “they are robust and agile hunters with good eyesight”). When you are six, this is a little traumatic. But you know what? After a few years we knew what to do and were singing and laughing while we did it. We figured out how to use the latrines, too: A shaky little girl would hold open the door and shine the flash light in for you while you went. Then you would scamper back through the dewy woods and into your tent. The discipline of cleaning that filthy thing made cleaning the toilet at home seem like brushing your teeth. And though we never got used to the smell, we eventually got used to it enough to be able to sleep soundly together while in a cow shed on a Swiss alp.
Lesson No. 2. Don’t kill the children.
A big part of Girl Scouts is leading younger scouts. This is something I didn’t even really think about at the time, but it taught me so much about how to relate to people who are younger than me–i.e. how to enjoy and not kill them. This started when I was a Brownie. As a Brownie, the Juniors probably didn’t always appreciate my loud singing of Pocahontas songs and splash wars during canoeing expeditions. Several years later, it was my turn. I remember my friend and me being entrusted with a younger scout in our canoe. All she had to do was sit there and be paddled around. Literally. She whined incessantly. I. Hate. Whining. “I was paddling myself when I was her age!” I thought. I came dangerously close to whacking her in the head with my paddle, but then I thought about the girls who had been patient with me. Instead, I just “accidentally” splashed her with my paddle every time I took a stroke. By the time I was in high school, I was being entrusted with groups of 30 or 40 scouts at a time at badge workshops, and it really wasn’t even that hard to keep their attention and control. It was fun!
Lesson No. 3. Big girls don’t cry.
We could be some tough cookies. But we could also be half-baked. Girl Scouts put us through the fire and helped us come out not too hard and not too soft. Backpacking in freezing rain=less than amazing. But one year we were backpacking with the Boy Scouts, and there was an unspoken code that NO ONE was allowed to complain. Our quiet trudging spoke volumes through the secret language developed by years in challenging situations together: “The first girl who complains in front of these boys gets it.” My hip bones were being rubbed raw by a pack that seemed to weigh more than half of my body weight. My friend just in front of me marched through a freezing puddle without even trying to dodge it. What did it matter? She was already soaked. When we finally made camp, I went off to change into dry clothes and finally shed some frustrated tears because my fingers were too numb to unzip my pants. I came back and crawled into my tent. A fellow scout was in her sleeping bag, crying quietly to herself. Another night we were sleeping in the open when we were awakened by snow falling on our faces. My sister once got hypothermia on a G.S. backpacking trip in the Beartooth Wilderness in Montana. Our tents have been plagued by massive wolf spiders and wasps. The rusty cots we slept on, which were donated after the war (that’s WWII), had inexplicable red stains and a way of breaking violently while you were on them. Once a Girl Scout volunteer gardening project at a church turned into us watching my mom kill a vibrant nest of squirming black widows in a lumber pile. Waking up to a tornado and a ravaged tent was startling. An 80-foot rappel, whitewater rafting, hiking across a glacier, swimming in rapids, speaking in front of over a hundred adults–these things all had the potential to frighten little girls. Dangerous stuff? Not really. Was it that bad? Well, we kept going to camp, didn’t we? Tougher situations became the source of pride. If these things had been made more easy for us, we would never have experienced the job of showing ourselves that we could go through them.
Lesson No. 4. Keep Calm and Carry On (Loudly, with screams)
Lying in your tent listening to coyotes howling nearby is very real. Lying in your tent and listening to the chants of an occult known to practice in the nearby woods is also very real, but only in your 11-year-old mind. In neither situation will panicking help you. Girl Scouts taught me that the most contagious disease known to mankind (or girlkind) is fear. Did I learn this lesson quickly? Not on your life. There was the night we became convinced that there were wild dogs on the loose in the Louisville Science Museum during a lock-in. There was the time the “slave drivers” were snapping their whips around the corner while we were all hidden in an alley way during a town-wide Underground Railroad simulation weekend in a little K Y town. There was the time our whitewater rafting guide wouldn’t let us back in the raft as we floated toward rapids and he told us about catfish the size of the raft. Or the famous time my dad had to carry a hyperventilating girl across a creek of full of crawdads and “accidentally” slipped in the water that was infested with her little terrors. In every case, things quickly went downhill when one girl got scared. It finally dawned on me one night when I was sent by a leader with another girl to close a gate during a campout in her yard. This might not sound scary or at all demanding. But she had prefaced this simple request with: “Did you forget to close the gate? You know the wild dogs get in when we leave that open!” And we had just watched White Fang. Plus, earlier we had been playing Romans and Christians in the yard and gotten ourselves spooked (sometimes the Romans got too into their roles, and someone usually ended up shedding blood. This rousing game ended with a Christian hugging a tree and wetting her pants as she called out that she “needed to talk to” a leader). This gate was on the far side of the yard in the dark. We were fastening it when my flashlight went out. That’s the moment when it dawned on me: Maybe this is a setup. Maybe I’m supposed to show myself that I can NOT get scared. I made myself calm down. The contagion was beaten. At least until a few weeks later when I was hanging off a rock face with a 90 pound woman who answered to “Raccoon” belaying me. But that’s another story.
Lesson No. 5. Don’t worry about what people think.You’re wearing a beanie and knee socks.
I had a real sense of pride when I put on that uniform. My little sash with badges I had spent hours earning. My little beanie hat. My knee socks with “flashes,” these little tassels that hung off the garters you used to keep your socks up. But those uniforms weren’t going to win me any fashion points. Looking back, one of the coolest things about Girl Scouts is that it taught me to not care about being cool. I always HATED selling Girl Scout cookies, but years of standing in front of the largest shopping establishments in town taught me to get over myself. Insecure? Try selling cookies next to the busiest store in town in teal culottes at age 13. I remember stacking cookie boxes up in front of me to try to hide. Girl Scout camp was bissfully absent from the appearance-obsessed culture girls are being exposed to at earlier and earlier ages. We ran wild like hoodlums with our grimy little faces rubbed in dirt “warpaint” with ratty washcloths safety-pinned to our pants to use to clean everything off with (we called these cloths “ATPs,” short for “All Purpose Towels”). We looked horrible, but we felt amazing. At the beginning of the weekend, one mom who was particularly good at french braids, would do one that was so tight we looked like we had gotten mini-facelifts. Those things were wonderful. You would get your french braid on Friday night, and take it down on the ride back from camp on Sunday afternoon. By the time I was in high school, some people thought it was a little nerdy to be a scout. Sure, spooning out meals at the local soup kitchens, teaching little girls how to start campfires and loading into oversized jeans for wild caving in the mud wasn’t going to win me the trendy award. But let’s be real: I was never really in the running for it.
Lesson No. 6. Play nice, ladies.
Anyone who saw the headlines from this season of the Bachelor and heard about Courtney’s pathetic attempts to get along with a house full of girls will know what I’m talking about: If a girl only gets along with guys, there is a problem. I’m 100 percent behind having lots of close guy friends. But if you can’t enjoy your time with girls, something is up. Girls, however, can be an acquired taste. Girl Scouts forced us to spend lots of time together without a guy in sight. There was no reason to pretend to get along in front of guys. There was no reason to be catty to make yourself look better for a guy. There was just a bunch of girls stuck together in the woods. There were moments I felt like killing my fellow scouts. That time a girl took a gooey marshmallow out of the fire and promptly stuck it on my head was one. The time another scout kept dropping the bread in our cheese fondue in front of an attractive Swiss guy was another. At the end of the day, however, I learned that hair grows back and fondue tastes just as good with the bread in it. And friends are much more valuable than either hair or fondue.
This list isn’t at all extensive. I haven’t touched on what it feels like to earn your Gold Award. I haven’t mentioned how wonderful it was to board my first solo flight at age 13 and fly to South Carolina for a marine biology trip–a trip half paid for by a committee after I did my first-ever selection interview. I haven’t described my solitary night watch on a schooner in the Great Lakes with a cool breeze on my face and dazzling stars overhead. I didn’t even mention the moment I reached the summit of my first alp, oversaw the ceremonial retirement of my first flag or attended my first high tea. It all feels like yesterday. Happy Birthday, Girl Scouts. I think of you every time I use a clean toilet, get really really cold, and get something stuck in my hair–or whenever I see a girl having the time of her life.