Lessons I learned in the Boy Scouts of America

Like a lot of young American boys, I joined the Cub Scouts (the elementary school version of the Boy Scouts) as a Tiger Cub when I was in the first grade. My parents had already instilled in me a love of the outdoors, and the recruitment poster had promised me THE GREAT OUTDOORS. And, like a lot of young American boys, I was a sucker for a good sales pitch. Despite the apprehension my parents felt about joining an organization known to be hostile to gay people, I was soon enrolled in the program.

These are some things I learned during my time in the Cub Scouts, the Boy Scouts, and as an adult volunteer for Iowa City Troop 212, the same troop to which I belonged in my youth.

How to’s:

  • How to iron — When I was a Tiger Cub, we didn’t have the snazzy navy blue uniform, just a hunter’s safety orange t-shirt and iron-on decals. My mom Terry did most of the actual work but insisted on teaching me, carefully of course, how to iron. I was way ahead of the curve for my home economy class (do they still teach that, by the way?) and still derive a peculiar enjoyment from ironing to this day.
Our first night of camp from a ten day backpacking trip I took with Troop 212 last summer. Those tents didn’t set themselves up.
  • How to pitch a tent — It wasn’t until I got a little bit older that I actually figured out that knowing how to pitch a tent is not common knowledge, especially for people who grew up in suburban or urban communities.
  • How to pitch a business — I was taking a merit badge class for the Entrepreneurship merit badge when I first heard the phrase “value proposition.” A few months later, my best friend (who I met in the Boy Scouts and is also now an Eagle Scout) and I had launched our first lawn-mowing startup: J&W Lawn Care. A few years after that, I started my first “official” business, a peer tutoring company called Iowa City Learns.
  • How to safely use a firearm — I earned both my Rifle Shooting and Shotgun Shooting merit badges on my journey to Eagle Scout, and I spent many an afternoon at summer camp shooting .22s and 20-gauges. It wasn’t until later that I realized my comfort with keeping, holding, and using firearms has led to a view of gun rights and gun control that is substantially different than the views of my political peers. I am not a gun nut. I don’t own a firearm, I don’t have imminent plans to purchase one, and I also find that my comfort and passing familiarity with firearms has substantially affected how I understand the role and symbolism of guns in American culture.
Not a bad shot, either.
  • How to be okay with not being cool—When you’re a little kid, everyone wants to be a Cub Scout. (Or, at least, lots of people do.) I loved having so many friends who were also in the Scouts. As I got older, more and more of my friends left Scouting to take up other activities. And, somehow, the Boy Scouts became “not cool.” Because I was a teenager, it pained me deeply that this meant, by the transitive property of coolness, that I was not cool. I sometimes lied about being in the Boy Scouts (which was a direct violation of the very first tenet of the Scout Law: a Scout is trustworthy). And so I had a choice: either I could quit the Boy Scouts or I could be cool. I honestly couldn’t quite tell you why I stayed, but I’m glad I did. I found that after I’d made the conscious choice to stay, I was much more comfortable with not being cool.
In the Rain Gutter Regatta, you blow in your boats sail to propel it over the water in the rain gutter. My moms point to my victory as proof that I’ve always been full of hot air.
  • How to compete without being a jerk about it — Scouting places a huge emphasis on teamwork, leadership, and cooperation. The Scout Law calls on Scouts to be cheerful and courteous and kind and friendly. It’s also full of competitions, including the Rain Gutter Regatta, pictured left. Further, a buddy and I once won a competition at a winter camporee to see which team could build a fire and boil an egg the fastest. The catch is that the only way you could tell if the egg was boiled or not was by breaking it on your head. I was really, really glad that it was boiled. Fortune, it seems, does favor the bold. Americans tend to think of competition as a solitary pursuit — Scouting taught me that competition and cooperation can go hand in hand.
  • How to organize a project — The capstone project for the Eagle Scout rank has to involve at least one hundred volunteer hours from the people who participate. (i.e. you have to organize others, not do it all yourself.) My project, which I called “Scouting for Books,” combined two of my favorite things in life. First, the annual “Scouting for Food” campaign, which distributes plastic bags across neighborhoods to collect food for local food pantries. I’d spent many early Saturday mornings participating in Scouting for Food since I was a Cub Scout. Second, reading. My project was essentially Scouting for Food, but with books. We wound up collecting thousands of books for the local school district, the Iowa City Veterans Affairs hospital, and the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics. Like with shooting, I didn’t full appreciate the impact this lesson had on me until much later in life.
  • How to march in parades —Less an important life lesson and more an excuse to share a favorite picture. The first time I ever marched in a parade was in the “Dairy Days of Summer” parade, which is held by many Wisconsin towns every year. My moms helped corral me and my other Cub Scouts into line. In the picture below, I’m the one in the tan uniform, front and center, looking at my mom Terry, who was holding the camera. My mom Jackie is off to the left in the light yellow uniform.
“Dairy Days” parades were a big deal in Marshfield, Wisconsin, the small Midwestern town in which my family lived when I first joined the Cub Scouts.
  • How to enjoy winter camping — Bring hot cocoa supplies. Bring fire making supplies. Bring hand warmers. Bring warm mittens. (Do NOT bring gloves.) Cabins can be nice, but don’t use them excessively. Snow shoe! Downhill ski! Make a snow cave! Do you want to build a snow man? Just let it go. Know when to pack it in and stay indoors. Always wear a hat. Do not wear cotton. Smart wool is your friend.
Speaking at the Democratic National Convention in 2012.
  • How to give a speech — In order to advance through the ranks, you have to hold leadership positions in your troop. How do you get elected to those positions? By giving a speech to your fellow Scouts and trying to convince them that you’re the (young) man for the job. This meant convincing my peers of something, which meant that they had to come first. Any good speech puts the audience before the speaker. Context, context, context.
  • How to step up —While serving in a leadership role as a youth in the Boy Scouts, you have to attend committee meetings, plan events, run troop gatherings, oversee other youth when you’re out camping, and plenty more. I learned quickly that the adults in our troop meant it when they said that they expected our troop to be a “boy-run” unit. If we wanted to make peach cobbler on our camping trip, then by God someone was going to have to bottom line that obligation and it wasn’t going to be an adult. (The smart adults usually brought their own desserts.) Stepping up and into leadership meant taking responsibility and following through — or no peach cobbler.
Wise words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • How to step back — As a youth, I was an eager beaver, often to the point of obnoxiousness. As an adult volunteer with Troop 212, I learned how important it is to let young people grow and develop and solve problems on their own accord. This is occasionally true for adults as well. It also taught me how to shut my mouth and listen, something about which I am always trying to be better.
  • How to read a map and shoot a bearing — Most of us, myself included, now rely on Google Maps to get any and everywhere. But when the zombie apocalypse comes and the Internet goes down, I’m going to be able to get around just fine. Thank goodness.

Life Lessons:

The strength of love knows no bounds.

Members of Troop 212 participate in my Eagle Scout Court of Honor.

My mother Terry was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a devastating autoimmune disease, shortly after I joined the Cub Scouts.

My mom Terry in her tilt-recline wheelchair in 2007. It was a difficult time.

Eight years after her diagnosis, my mother Terry organized my Eagle Scout Court of Honor, the award ceremony for earning Scouting’s highest rank, pictured above. Each candle represents one of the twelve points of the Scout Law. Each of the boys standing up represents one of the six ranks on the journey to Eagle Scout, the highest rank in the Boy Scouts.

My mother Terry was so weak that she couldn’t sit up long enough to watch this ceremony take place. Instead, she was reclined back in her tilt-recline wheelchair, listening closely to the proceedings and saving her strength so she could stand (using two canes) when it was my turn to pin the “Eagle Mom” award on her jacket. When the time came, she slowly stood and hobbled on both canes over to the appropriate position. She stayed on her feet long enough for me to attach the small, oval-shaped pin to her blazer and then shuffled back to her wheelchair.

I did not appreciate at the time the sacrifice she had made to organize and participate in that ceremony, nor did I grasp the sacrifices of health and career that she was making to be as active in my life as she was. Frankly, I’m not sure children can ever understand just how much they have been given by their parents until they have kids of their own.

I do know, however, that without the strength, love, and support of my two moms, I would not have made the rank of Eagle Scout.

Standing up to your friends is really tough.

It didn’t happen often, but occasionally even Boy Scouts (myself included!) would behave poorly. Bullying and other bad behavior can definitely happen when the adults aren’t around, and standing up to your friends, as Albus Dumbledore taught us, is really, really hard.

My first-ever press conference was politely asking the Boy Scouts of America to stop discriminating against gay people and to reinstate ousted Scout leader Jennifer Tyrrell.

I also know that other Scouts occasionally stood up to me when I was doing some unacceptable ish, and I respect their courage now more than ever.

The difficulty of standing up to the people you respect is something that I’ve continued to learn more and more about as I’ve run the campaign Scouts for Equality, an effort to end the Boy Scouts of America’s ban on gay members. I love Scouting and am deeply thankful for everything I learned in the program — and that’s precisely why I think it’s so important for the BSA to maintain its cultural relevance by doing the right thing.

When I was taking my Citizenship in the Community merit badge, I was taught that if we see a problem in the world, it is our responsibility to work to make it better. It’s one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned.

Life is about making the time, not finding the time.

When I was on my way to Eagle Scout, I often felt like I didn’t have time for the Boy Scouts any more. I was playing football and I was swimming, I was on the staff of my high school newspaper, I wanted to do theater and join the speech and debate team, I was really interested in girls and there weren’t any girls in the Boy Scouts, etc.

Further, actually getting to the rank of Eagle Scout takes a lot of work. Not only do you have to complete a capstone project that takes hundreds of hours of planning and execution. You have to hold leadership positions in your troop, which requires a ton of extra time in addition to showing up every Monday nights. You also have to earn dozens of merit badges (which are not super deep dives into a topic so much as a series of introductory courses) including:

First Aid, Citizenship in the Community, Citizenship in the Nation, Citizenship in the World, Communication, Personal Fitness, Emergency Preparedness OR Lifesaving, Environmental Science OR Sustainability, Personal Management, Swimming OR Hiking OR Cycling, Camping, Cooking , AND Family Life

And then a bunch more of “electives” on top of that.

When you’re an adolescent, it’s really easy to look at all of those requirements and think, “How am I going to find the time?” And frankly, adults do this all the time, too.

Scouting taught me that you have to make the time, not find the time.

It’s a critical difference that many people go their entire lives without realizing or really understanding. It’s a distinction I discovered in Scouting.

Put the big rocks first.

When I was a Cub Scout, our Pack (the Cub Scout equivalent of a troop) leader at one point illustrated this lesson by getting out a large glass jar and carefully filling it with some big rocks. He asked us if the jar was full. Some of us said “Well of course!” With a smile on his face, he then added a bunch of gravel to the jar, and again asked us if the jar was full. (If you haven’t realized it yet, he was demonstrating “The Big Rocks of Life” story by Stephen Covey.) Then he added sand to the jar. And finally, he pulled out a pitcher of water, filled the jar to the brim, and then he got out the lid and sealed the jar shut.

“Now what would have happened if I’d tried to fill it with sand or water, first?” He asked us, holding up the jar.

“You wouldn’t have been able to fit any rocks in!” someone said.

“That’s right. The big rocks have to come first. And if you don’t choose to put them first, you’ll never be able to add them in once your life is full.”

It was a simple story, but it had a big impact on me.

Our values are the moral compasses of our lives.

The most important moments in our lives are usually decisions. The choices we make — and indeed, our ability to choose — are what define who we are and the lives we lead. Our values guide us through those decisions.

The Scout Law: A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

The Scout Oath: On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law, to help other people at all times, to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.

Memorizing both of these is one of the first things you do when you join the Boy Scouts. You raise your right hand, make the Boy Scout salute (which is actually the same as the District 11 salute, but with your right arm bent at a ninety-degree angle) and make a solemn vow.

Photo credit: Buzzfeed

When you first learn them, they’re just a bunch of words. You memorize them because you have to in order to advance to the next rank. But over time, slowly, they grew from words I said every Monday night to a code of living and a compass to follow.

I wasn’t perfect then, of course, and I’m certainly not perfect now. I don’t always obey the Scout Law or the Scout Oath. I occasionally cut corners, I’m not always cheerful, I have said (and I’m sure I will say in the future) plenty of things that are unkind and unfriendly.

But the compass is strong enough that every time I do one of those things, I can feel myself straying off track from the direction I want to go, the direction in which that compass is pointing me. I know when I’ve made a mistake. And I have the Scouts to thank for that.

Recommitting myself to these values as an adult via my work with Scouts for Equality has been a profound experience, and I’ve found that if you have a compass that other people can recognize is true, they’re much more willing to follow you on your journey, wherever it may take you.

Be prepared.

We live in a fast-paced world that is only getting faster and in an interconnected world that is only becoming even more connected. Words, images and videos can go viral at the drop of a hat.

On January 31, 2011, I gave a short three-minute speech that changed my life forever. Thankfully, I was prepared and was able to seize the moment and use it to make a small difference.

You never know what might happen. When a video of my testimony to the Iowa House Judiciary Committee about growing up with gay parents went viral back in 2011, I was not ready for the media frenzy that ensued, but I was prepared.

The lessons I learned from my moms around the dinner table and the values that were reinforced in Scouting had prepared me for a situation I had not foreseen and for which nobody could be truly ready.

It’s been (and continues to be) a crazy, crazy ride. And if I hadn’t been prepared to seize the opportunity, it’s likely that I would have finished my engineering degree and would be working in that field. Instead, since January 2011, I’ve been advocating on behalf of other families like mine, which has been one of the single most rewarding experiences of my life.

A note that was waiting for me when I stepped up to speak at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

This is just the beginning.

They tell you this when you become an Eagle Scout. You go through a final review with adults and leaders from your troop and they ask you a lot of questions. These are the people who have been watching you grow since you were an awkward junior high student. They ask you what the Scout Law and Oath mean to you. They might ask you about mistakes you’ve made or lessons you’ve learned. They ask you what it means to do your duty to God and your country. They asked me what, if I had to describe it with one word, being an Eagle Scout meant. I blanked. The first thing that came to mind was “righteous,” which was an unintentionally hilarious thing to say to a group of people who had come of age in the seventies and eighties. (They were looking for “leader,” I quickly realized.) They ask you about your Eagle Scout project and your aspirations.

And then they send you out of the room and make you sweat for a little bit.

And then they bring you back in.

They congratulate you, and they tell you that even though you’ve made it to the top of the mountain, this is just the beginning.

They’re right.

Two years later, I read The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, an interpretation of the Greek myth about the man condemned to roll a boulder from the bottom of a mountain to the top for all eternity.

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

There’s more to do.

There’s more to see.

There are peaks to conquer.

There are mountains to move.

Be prepared, embrace the struggle, and never stop climbing.

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