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Nov. 17, 2004

Scouting's a hard hike

by Sally Lanar, Page Editor
A silence settles over the 40-some people gathered in the Takoma Park City Council chamber as seven high-school boys in traditional tan scout uniforms march ritually down the center aisle, proudly carrying the American flag and their troop's bright ribbons. The boys line up, straight and tall, along the front of the room, their uniforms decorated with hard-won patches and red scout kerchiefs. They and those around them solemnly stand and begin to recite the Boy Scout Oath and Law: “On my honor, I will do my best...”

Takoma Park's Boy Scout Troop 33, numerous city citizens, the city's Mayor and its Maryland House of Delegates Representative Peter Franchot came together on Oct. 16 to recognize junior Dan Munson's achievement of the highest rank in boy scouting. He now proudly wears the pin and kerchief of an Eagle Scout on his uniform.

Munson is part of a rare breed: Among high-school students, only about 244,700 boys and 190,000 girls participate in Boy or Girl Scouts nationwide, according to research conducted by the Boy and Girl Scouts of America organizations. Out of those 244,700 high-school Boy Scouts, only one to two percent ever achieve Munson's rank of Eagle.

Although there are serious aspects to scouting in high school, the program isn't just about the pomp and circumstance shown in Munson's ceremony. Adventure, discovery and leadership are also central parts of the high-school scouting experience. Even with these benefits, many Blazers never join scouts or drop out when they reach high school and miss out on all the fun.

More than just the cookies

Silver Spring's Boy Scout Troop 249 gathers at Marvin Memorial Church across from Blair every other Tuesday to work on merit badges, plan future trips and, at the end of every meeting, engage in a ritual dodgeball game. On Oct. 19, a swarm of young, energetic boys fills the room, fidgeting as they try to keep silent and listen to their Scout Master. It's hard to pick out the three high-school boys hanging out near the walls, hidden as they are behind the throng of smaller scouts.

Although the little kids' presence sometimes frustrates the troop's high-school members, senior Andrew Curtis finds helping younger scouts to be a rewarding experience. “It makes me feel really good that I can have an influence on their lives,” he explains.

Junior Brian Yu, another member of the troop, agrees with Curtis but says he enjoys camping more than the bi-weekly meetings. Once a year, Troop 249 attends the Klondike Derby, a three-day-long camp-out during which numerous scouting troops compete in winter sports and cold-weather survival skills. Each night, the troop lights huge fires. “I'll never forget the expression, 'Got any eyebrows left?'” laughs Yu, remembering how the fire exploded last year after the scouts poured kerosene on it-multiple times.

Practical jokes are never far off when Boy Scouts are around. Every time junior Ben Tousley and his friends from Troop 33 go on skiing trips, they play a ritual game of jumping off the cabin roof and sliding down the snow-covered hill on their bed mattresses.

Going abroad in search of adventure is another integral part of high-school scouting. Senior Saskia Alemar traveled last spring break with Takoma Park's Girl Scout Troop 2131 to London for eight days, where she saw Les Miserables, visited Stonehenge and dined at a 300-year-old pub.

Yet for Munson, scouting has been more than fun and games. To earn his Eagle, Munson completed 21 merit badges and designed an Eagle Project to collect 2,000 books for the charity So Others Might Eat. From his Eagle experience, Munson learned leadership skills he wouldn't have acquired at school. “There's a difference between being a leader in the classroom and a leader in the real world, and scouting has really taught me that,” he says.

“Closet” scouts

According to Blazer scouts, the absence of scouting in American pop culture and the negative stereotype of scouts as goody-two-shoes overshadow the opportunities the program offers, leading to a decline in high-school troop membership.

Vann Pearsall, District Director for the Boy Scouts' National Capital Area Council, argues that high school students are more likely to choose sports over scouting because of the popularity of professional sports. “Let's face it-successful basketball and baseball players are always on TV earning money, but you never see an Eagle Scout selling Sprite,” he says.

The lack of support for scouting in American culture contributes to the stigma attached to being a high-school scout. “There are lots of 'closet' girl scouts because they're afraid of what their friends will say,” explains Patti Howard, Girl Scout Area Manager for Washington, D.C., and Maryland.

Freshman Russell King, a member of Troop 33, is no stranger to this peer pressure. “My friends are always making fun of me and saying, 'You run around in booty shorts and help old ladies cross the street,'” complains King. People in general, King argues, have a stereotypical, false image of a Boy Scout. They see him as “a goofy-looking kid with a backpack and a walking stick on top of the mountain watching birds.”

Junior Vanessa Penney of Troop 2131 is far from the cliché Girl Scout image. Every time Penney, decked out in dyed hair, a lip ring and a rock shirt, tells people she's a Girl Scout, they give her “weird looks.” Penney's reaction is simple: She holds out her Girl Scout membership card and laughs at the shock on their faces.

For Penney and others, combating the ignorance that surrounds high-school scouting remains a daily struggle. As Curtis puts it, “People aren't willing to accept the fact that they don't know anything about [scouting], and they aren't willing to learn about it either.”

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  • Chris (View Email) on November 17, 2004
    Nice article! I love the lead. It really is sad that people consider being a Boy or Girl Scout geeky or 'un cool.' Both organizations do help communities and give teenagers a group to belong to. It is also nice how this article demonstrates how un-accepting teenagers and pop culture has become. Again, great reporting!
  • Oh man on November 18, 2004
    I swear, my biggest regret to date is that I didn't start scouting earlier and that I had to drop it because I didn't have time for it. Scouting is awesome.
  • N. on November 21, 2004
    I've never been able to hold a high opinion of the Boy Scouts as an organization because of their homophobic policies. I'm sure that many scouts don't agree with the policies, how do they deal with it?
  • Sally Lanar (View Email) on November 21, 2004
    The Boy Scouts do have certain homophobic policies, but the troops that I interviewed do not have these policies. In particular, Troop 33 from Takoma Park has filed complaints against the BSA Council and does not discriminate it's leaders based on sexual orientation.
    I'm not sure of the Silver Spring troop's position, but I think it's probably similar, seeing how the troop is located in such a diverse community.
    Several former high-school scouts that I interviewed mentioned the homosexuality factor as one of the reasons they dropped out of the program, although it was not a prominent one.
    One father of Troop 33 resigned his Eagle Scout and title (I think) because of his disagreement over the BSA stance on homosexuality.
  • i'm a quitter ++ on November 29, 2004
    Why was I lazy, unmotivated, and shy? Apparently, being an Eagle Scout is very good thing to put on a college application. Congrats to Dan Munson!

    As for the Boy Scout Oath, which contains the phrase "...and be morally straight," I say, they're a private organization, and they can do what they want. Although I have no problem with homosexuality, I don't think that people should complain about the BSA.
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