Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Failed Merit Badge Counselor

So, I failed my first job as a merit badge counselor.

I thought things were going well enough. We were working on Citizenship in the Nation. I had printed out the requirements. I had reviewed the possible answers. The answers I had found on the Internet were interesting and wide-ranging. They made me think of what my answers would be, some the same, and some different than what I had found. It was an interesting subject.

The first requirement? What does it mean to be a citizen of our nation? What does it take to be a good citizen? I love that second question. It made me think of my grandpa, the one who liked to talk about rights and responsibilities, the one who loved American history so much that we discussed it over Sunday dinner. And here I had the same opportunity with a Boy Scout.

The Scout was reluctant, at first, but I worked to get him talking beyond the rote answers. The single word he had written down on the first requirement of his worksheet was 'vote.'

So, I need to tell you something. I was nervous. I had never been a merit badge counselor before. I told Mike that I wanted to make this one good, that I would work with this boy as though he were my own, as if he were my favorite kid in the Troop. It took some planning to get ready, but I thought I had begun well.

"This is the first time I've done this, you know," I had said to the boy as we sat down in the glassed-in foyer of the church. He said nothing in reply. I went on. I knew I shouldn't follow my impulse to fill in the silence like I usually do when I'm nervous, but it's a hard impulse to fight. As the boy opened his binder, he sat hunched in his chair staring at me with a look on his face. Teenagers.

He pulled out some papers. When we'd talked, he'd said that he wanted to get me to sign off for Citizenship of the World and of the Nation. It turned out that he'd already gotten Citizenship of the World signed and instead wanted to cover Citizenship in the Community. I told him I hadn't prepared for that, that we could work on Citizenship in the Nation if he was ready and do the community next week. I picked up my papers and looked briefly at them.

"I believe the first question is the most important, so we're going to spend most of our time on that," I replied to his silence.

It wasn't a good beginning.

I smiled. He didn't. He looked at his worksheet.

"So, explain about being a citizen of the nation," I went on.

He mumbled, but I thought I heard him say 'vote.'

"What was that?"

"They have the right to vote," he said a little louder.

"That's a good start," I said, "but how do you become a citizen of the nation?"

"You are either born here or you take a test and become a citizen."

That was a start.

"Okay, so you're a citizen of the nation. What does that mean?"

"You get to vote." Okay, I'd go with this train of thought.

"Do you get anything else?" I asked. There was silence while I waited.

"You have freedom of speech too," he said. I really wanted to talk about responsibility in addition to the privileges, but I managed to get him to talk about some of the rights a citizen had. His answers were from the book, well, the Internet. This kid hadn't thought a thing on his own, but I was willing to keep going.

"So what do you have to do to become a good citizen of the nation?" I asked. I wanted him to talk about how many of the rights were also responsibilities.

"I don't know," he answered.

"Well, try to think of something," I countered. He looked at his sheet with the one word on it. Vote. That would be a beginning.

Eventually, he said, "follow the laws."

"Good!" I said. His brain had engaged. I wanted him to think of more. Then, with more encouragement, he came up with paying taxes, going to work, not being a deadbeat like the people who signed up for Obamacare.


I really wanted to argue with him about the Obamacare statement, but that wasn't why I was sitting where I was. I took a deep breath. I held up my hand.

"We're not going to debate politics here tonight," I said. I was proud that I hadn't taken the bait. I made him go on. I wanted to hear something more about citizenship.

"How do you define someone who's more than just a basic citizen that follows the laws, goes to work and pays taxes? How do you define a great citizen?"

"I don't know."

Oh, I hate that answer.

"So you're working on your Citizenship in the Community merit badge too, aren't you?"


"What do you think constitutes a great citizen in the community?"

"Someone who's active?"

"Can you be more explicit?"

"Someone who does things."

"Like what?"

"Like my Eagle Scout project." This boy was surrounded by men and women who gave every Tuesday night and many weekends, I thought, as I looked through the glass at more than seven adults who could very well exemplify a great citizen, of the community and of the nation. I wasn't ready to talk about this boy's Eagle Scout project. He seemed as though he wanted something from me. Maybe I should have validated his attempt at being labeled a great citizen, but I didn't. When he had described his Eagle Scout project at an earlier date, I'd thought he could plan a more comprehensive project. It was a minimum plan. Mike and I have discussed how some boys strive to do a great Eagle Scout project and some just do the minimum. That wasn't the scope of this meeting either.

"So, is there a connection between someone who's a great citizen of the community and of the nation?" Was that a leading question or what?

"Yeah." Oh man. Someone give me a pair of pliers. I was pulling teeth.

"So, what things can a man do to be a great citizen?" I asked again. He looked at his sheet of paper. I wanted him to think of himself, to think of the man he wanted to become. I wanted him to think of the men who invented things, the women who fought for the right to vote, the people who built libraries and universities, the people who wrote plays that made statements against bigotry, the people who wrote books and painted and struggled to learn how the universe works. I wanted this boy to think of the people who chose to serve. We stared at each other for a few seconds. It seemed so very much longer than that.

"They vote?" he said as he looked at his sheet. And then, as I often do, I began to fill in the silence with my words. I suggested that voting was a beginning, but that using your freedom of speech might be a way, that volunteering your time was a way, that joining the military was a way, even serving on the school board or the PTSA were ways people could show good citizenship. I went on to add a thought about writing letters to your politicians.

"I did that."

"Good! What did you write about?"

"I had to do it for this merit badge." Why did it mean so much less to me that this boy was forced to write a letter about something he didn't seem to remember in order to be given a merit badge than if an individual was passionate about a subject and wrote a letter in order to be heard?

"This isn't just an assignment for you to complete, you know."

"Yes, it is." Was I beating a dead horse? Apparently, I was.

"Let's go onto the second requirement," I said. I was still trying to make this work.

"So, you were supposed to visit a historic site or research one. What did you do?" I said.

"Sue told me to visit the Panama Hotel." Sue told him?

"And what was it like?" I asked. He looked at his worksheet.

"I don't know. It was built in 1905." Next to the number two, I could see, even upside-down, he had written 'Panama Hotel, 1905, Japanese.'

"Would you put your worksheet away for a little bit? I just want you to tell me what the hotel was like."

"I don't know."

"Oh, just describe it to me," I said and I smiled at him.

"I don't remember," he said. His eyes were going dark, his mouth narrowed.

"Surely you could tell me a little about it."


"Why not?" I asked.

"I don't remember."

"I thought you went there to visit it?"

"I did."

"So, tell me something, anything, about the hotel. Okay?"

"I don't remember."

"Why not?"

"It was a long time ago, about a year and a half."

"I went to the Grand Canyon when I was nine for twenty minutes and I can remember that. I'm 54 now." He just stared at me. Okay, maybe I shouldn't have said that about the Grand Canyon. I decided I should backtrack a little.

"Maybe it would have been good for you to do something that had some meaning for you instead of something that someone suggested. This isn't an assignment."

"Yes it is."

"I want this to have meaning for you and not just be something you do because you have to."

"It is an assignment. I did this worksheet. Why can't I just read you what I wrote on my worksheet?" He stared at me then. His face went red. This time, I stared back a little.

"Because I want it to mean something. I want you to be able to discuss this, to think, to ..." I trailed off. I wasn't going to get anywhere telling him that it was a subject worthy of debate over Sunday dinner. He stared at me, slapped his binder closed, jammed loose papers into it and zipped it closed.

"So, are you done then?" I asked. He didn't answer me. He just stared.

"How can we move forward with this thing?"

"We can't," he said. He stared some more.

"There isn't anything we can do to work this out?"

"I'll get Sue to sign it."

"Look, do you want to look this over and meet again next week to discuss it?"

"You were looking at your papers. How come I don't get to?" he blurted out.

"If you want to do it that way, I'll be prepared to talk about all of this next week without looking at any papers. How does that sound?"

"I just want to look at my papers."

"And read stuff from it that you have no recollection of at all."

"Yeah." And he sat there staring at me with his hands on the outside of his binder. I noticed that his knuckles were white.

"So, I'll call Sue and discuss this with her and we'll see what happens next. Okay?"

And he didn't answer me. He just stood up and left the foyer. Nick told me he heard him gun his engine as he drove away. For the rest of the meeting, I stood behind Nick and next to one of the Assistant Boy Scout Leaders, a man I considered to be a great citizen after getting to know him during the past year. This man had served in the military, worked as an engineer designing technology, and regularly volunteered his time to his community with patience and kindness. This was the kind of man I hoped my son would emulate, the kind of man I hoped the Boy Scout I'd just interviewed might strive to become. So, I'm telling you that I failed somehow tonight.

At least I didn't cry until I got home.

Thank you for listening, jb

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