"All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Boy Scouting"
Presented: 10 January 2000 at the Kiwanis Club of Upper Darby, PA
When I first looked to scouting as a youngster, I was too young for the Boy Scout program, but old enough to be a Cub Scout. There were no cub scout troops in my area, that we knew of, so I waited until I was old enough to join Boy Scout troop 38 in West Philadelphia, near where I lived.
I spent under two years in scouting between May 1964 until December 1965. I made the rank of first class. I attended camp, learned to tie knots, learned to make a fire and cook food, learned to camouflage myself in the woods, and most importantly learned valuable lessons in life that remain with me forever.
My first summer in scouting found me spending a week at Treasure Island, a boy scout camp operated by the Philadelphia Council near Pipersville, PA. Upon arrival we had to take a swimming test to determine if we were non-swimmers, beginners or swimmers. The designation would determine one's level of participation in water related activities in the week ahead.
I dove into the high end of the pool and proceeded to swim to the other side in order to obtain my beginners certification. I panicked and got out of the pool. I then tried again, and again I panicked, got out of the pool. I was destined to a week of "wimpy" water sport participation, as a "non-swimmer"…having not been certified as a beginner or swimmer.
My dad, who was there for the first day of camp, indicated that I attempted what most of the boys in my troop would not do, and that I should to be proud. Most of the boys in my troop declined to take the swimming test at all. I learned that day, that taking a risk, whether one succeeds or not, is better than to never have tried at all.
A scout is brave: defeat does not down him.
Scouting taught me to be helpful. Doing a "good turn" everyday is the enactment of the point of the scout law requiring helpfulness. This teaching began a habit in my life that remains until this day.
(I even had opportunity to walk old ladies across the street…just as the legend of scouting is so well known.)
And the scout oath says "to help other people at all times". This mantra remains in my mind always.
The Englishman Robert Bader-Powell, founder of scouting, originated the classic scout motto: "Be prepared". When asked by British reporters as to what a scout should be prepared for, Bader-Powell answered: "any old thing". And such is life as I see it. This value lesson motivated me to prepare and plan ahead, and be ready for any surprises.
I was given a second hand scout handbook. It was printed in 1948. I have it until this very day. One illustration shows scouts of various races and national origins talking in a group as friends, the caption reads: "Scouts of the World - Brothers together". This lesson in accepting all types of people, appeared in this BSA publication of 1948, while segregation was still alive in America and before this thinking became the fashionable rhetoric in the 1960's.
The new edition of The Boy Scout Handbook is not just a guide to the outdoors - but a guide for life. The Boy Scout Haandbook, now in its 11th edition, addresses issues such as alcohol and drug abuse, respecting others, and using the Internet appropriately.
A new section, "Preparing for Life," brings together advice to boys that covers a spectrum of social issues. Boys are encouraged to read books, to help around the home, to listen with respect to others, to prepare for responsible parenthood and to be sexually abstinent until marriage.
"Scouting has always been about preparing boys for life," says Chief Scout Executive Jere B. Ratcliffe. "Through the Scout Oath and Law, almost 99 million youngsters have learned to help and respect other people, exercise their minds and bodies and know right from wrong. The new handbook connects those basic tenets of our beliefs and practices more directly to the situations boys face today."
The handbook's 11th edition was originally planned for a February release, but is being shipped early because demand has stripped shelves of the current edition. Some 36 million copies of the familiar handbook are already in print.
Demand for the Boy Scout Handbook demonstrates the relevance of Scouting in today's society. A recent study by Louis Harris & Associates found that three-fourths or more of Boy Scouts believe the program teaches them right from wrong, helps them feel more self-confident and provides them with new skills.
The new handbook, the first revision made since 1990, resulted from talks with hundreds of Boy Scouts and Scout leaders across the country.
Other BSA programs range from Tiger Cubs, for first-grade boys; to Cub Scouts, for boys in the second through fifth grades; to Venturing, a new program for 14- to 20-year-old boys and girls.
Cub Scout and Boy Scout programs include more than 3.1 million boys and are supported by more than 1.2 million registered adult volunteer leaders.
The 1948 Scout Handbook (a.k.a. "Handbook For Boys") states clearly in its front leaf: Be First Class !
The scout insignia has two stars, one for truth and the other knowledge.
The scout law requires a scout to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverend. These twelve points, for almost a century, constitute a foundation, that to this day focuses at the scout's new mantra "character counts".
(There is a saying that the 13th Scout Law is: "A scout is always hungry". And as you can see, I have excelled in that area.)
In life however, theory, ideology and expectations do not render a desired reality. And such was my experience in scouting. I learned other lessons about life at ages 11 and 12 that many boys don't get a taste of until later years.
Firstly, I learned that not all scouts are trustworthy. At camp I had things stolen from my foot locker.
Secondly, older boys who were leaders would mistreat, mishandle and strike the younger, lower ranking scouts. My dad was at a scout event where this happened and he advised me to protest such treatment.
This was interesting since the scout law requires obedience to the troop. I thought, at that time: Was protesting mistreatment a violation of this law ?
Thirdly, many suburban troops had greater resources than out troop. We appreciate the little we had but it seemed that our experience was not as adventuresome and dynamic as that of better equipped troops.
Fourthly, I never earned a merit badge. I purchased the merit badge books, and studied them religiously. The books were available at the scout counters at the department stores on 69th Street in Upper Darby.
The big problem was getting what they called a merit badge counselor. This is an adult who would guide you through the badge requirements and finally certify that the scout has accomplished the requirements to receive the badge. The badges I chose to conquer were radio, electricity, electronics, computers and music.
There was only one eagle scout in our troop...the scoutmaster's son. The scoutmaster made a big to-do when his son became an eagle scout. Considering the number of merit badges needed to gain the rank of eagle, it was clear the scoutmaster's son had no problem getting the counselors needed for the badges, and the support needed to attain this top rank.
Fifthly, eagle scouts I have known personally have had less than perfect adulthood's. Many had to tackle the challenges of DUI situations, character and personal dysfunctions and even serious emotional problems. This is not the fault of the scouting program in anyway. But it is a caveat: just because someone was an Eagle Scout as a youth, they may not be as outstanding as an adult. And simply because someone only made a lower rank as a scout, or was not is scouting at all, does not mean their adults years will be limited in any way with regard to good character, honor, success, virtue or accomplishment.
My last meeting with my troop was actually a patrol meeting at one of the other boy's homes. It was December 1965, and I had just turned 12. I was always shy growing up, and still am so in many ways. I felt uncomfortable, and looking at the previous two years, and considering I was only months away from entering high school, I disestablished myself with the troop at that time.
It is said that: "once a scout, always a scout".
I left with a realization that we do not live in a perfect word.
That obedience is a good value, but people in authority must be watched, questioned and if necessary: opposed. Simply because someone is placed in charge, does I mean that someone has the right to abuse that office or infringe on another's rights and dignity.
I learned that I will experience favoritism all through my life, and that I must assert myself to obtain the things that I really want.
I learned that while we do not have all the resources we would like, we must make due with what we have and scrounge for what we can get to accomplish our mission.
I learned that once a scout - always a scout. A scout is always brave. Never give up; nothing is easy. Never lose sight of your dream, take risks, get up when you are down.
I learned that character does count and that truth and knowledge are above all: values of high importance.
A year later, in December 1966, I turned 13 and was in my first year of high school. I earned my amateur radio FCC license in 1968. I was in the amateur radio club and was learning all the things I was so hungry to learn about in radio, electricity and electronics back in scouting…but never did. Four years later I would be in college working on a degree in these disciplines. Not getting my merit badges in these areas had me down as a scout, but I got up and moved forwarded in later years, never giving up that dream.
In the mid-eighties I started a ten year stint as a leader in the Chester County 4-H program. I recall my experiences as a scout when dealing with the young people in that program. I was lucky to work with a 4-H county extension agent who was herself a girl scout years earlier, and we shared the same values.
But on the larger scale, what are we to do to foster the scouting movement ?
Is character still a value to be defended ?
In an article by Ralph Reed in "Rising Tide" magazine (fall 1999 issue), we are informed that a recent Zogby poll found 81% of voters listing integrity and honesty as the most important attribute they are seeking in the next president. "No one is above the law", Reed's article notes. His article explains "Character: You know it when you see it: ...honesty...humility...respect for others...lack of spite".
Scouting builds that character in the youth of today, and provides life long values.
What does the scout oath really say ?
"On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty to God and my country.
To obey the Scout Law.
To help other people at all times.
To keep myself: physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight".
According to a December 1999 informational letter I received from the Cradle of Liberty Council of the BSA : "We have law suits filed against us by people who demand that we change the very principles upon which we are founded. They (the plaintiffs) wanted us to remove the words "God" and "morally straight" from the Scout Oath because they felt it violated their freedom of choice...We are determined to stand strong...not only against pressures such as these, but against any demands in the future that we become more "politically correct."
Standing strong. A scout is always brave.
The scouting program even today teaches me a lesson.
How strange it was that this communication was sent to me while I was preparing this presentation…without warning…due to no effort on my part in any way. Divine Providence perhaps ?
I still treasure and appreciate the lessons, skills and knowledge that my brief time in scouting provided me.
I still live by the scout oath, and on my honor, do my best to obey the scout law.
(Even though I must admit being friendly, kind and reverent when dealing with airlines, rental car agencies and hotels is the toughest challenge for even the best scouts.)
As we face the new millennium, which by the way really arrives January 1, 2001...let us look at the challenges, dangers and temptations that face the youth of today and society in general. Let us look at the opportunity that the scouting programs, and youth programs like it offer us, to instill good character.
Not just are the youth of today faced with so many dangers, but so is the scouting program and its beliefs.
I'll admit that my brief time in scouting was not ideal. It was not the fault of the Boy Scouts of America in any way. Maybe there were some rough spots at the local level, but there was an environment that built the characters of us young men in troop 38. These are two years I look upon with respect and loving sentiment. This was not time wasted, but time of value.
I have learned from the past in many ways.
All I really needed to know I learned in boy scouting.
I salute you troop 38.
I salute you the Boy Scouts of America for giving me and millions of other boys the scouting experience. I say to them, stand strong against those who would try to weaken us.
Welcome those who are to follow in the path we took.
To them I say: be brave.
(question and answer period followed)
Click here to return to Mike's home page index.