I didn’t enjoy much about Girl Scouts. I liked the idea of the organization, the wholesome history of it, the biography of founder Juliette Gordon Lowe, the goodness implicit with being a Girl Scout, the uniform, the abstract idea of community. But in truth, I was too independent to function happily in a group. I found the other scouts and scout leaders to be “not my kind of people,” I looked bad in that shade of green and always felt as if parts of me were going to come bursting out of the buttons. I might have still been a girl when I was in Girl Scouts, but my body was a few years ahead of itself, so I looked like someone dressing up for Halloween more than a legitimate ten year old.
I never felt legitimate.
Frankly, I hated the outdoors, which might make one question why I had chosen this extracurricular activity for myself. Let me tell you: I was a badge whore. I loved the badge guidebook. I loved ticking items off the badge to-do list and earning yet another badge for my sash. My troop leader, an odd bird with old-timey glasses (now trendy again), told us once about a girl who had earned all of the badges. My troop leader felt it was ridiculous because it didn’t really demonstrate dedication to a single particular area and she felt the time it would take to earn those badges could be better spent living a life, but I thought the notion of earning all the badges was the equivalent of becoming Miss Teen USA. I wanted them all myself even though there were ones I never could have earned because they involved sports or extended camping or being gregarious.
Even then I was desperate to be a well-rounded person, though in my mind, well-rounded meant “knowledge about X” and not “experience doing X”, a problem I’ve continued to have into adulthood.
Oh, how I coveted those green, quarter-sized badges with activities embroidered on them that symbolized some possible accomplishment. In my thirties, I found my sash and badge book and was bitter that I couldn’t keep adding to the list as an adult. (I could easily earn a photography badge now for instance—I own multiple cameras and have an Instagram account.) Just by looking at the badges I had acquired in the late 1970s, I could see that I was preparing myself for a certain kind of life that hasn’t yet panned out. For instance, I have two different cooking-type badges even though I spend every night waiting for Z to serve me my supper like I’m some sort of princess. (The one time I tried to make him pancakes, they rolled right off of our new griddle and onto the floor. He’s the cook in the house.) Despite having a sewing badge, it was my mother who always sewed the badges onto my sash. She just did it so much better than I could, and I wanted it to look good.
We would occasionally get patches for something like the Spring Fling that we were supposed to put on the back of our sashes, but I wasn’t interested in patches. Anyone could get handed one of those who spent a Saturday attending some stupid gathering of Girl Scouts. To my mind, they just took up space where earned badges should go.
Aside from the badges, I also loved the system and symbolism in scouting. I loved that there was an actual guide about how to live your life well. And I remember in detail watching a Brownie ceremony when they got twirled around and had to look into a mirror before they “flew up” to junior scouts. I hadn’t been a Brownie, and I was bitter that I was now too old for the full experience. After being a junior scout, I wanted to be a cadet and then a senior scout, but even in my deluded, badge-lust state, I knew I wouldn’t last that long. Five days at Camp Wapi Kamigi nearly killed me. Beyond my dislike of camping, though, was my dislike of socializing with strangers, and even with people who I knew marginally. I loathed it.
One of my great early joys was an overnight (with mothers), and the next morning Mom nor I could face the idea of an entire day spent putting on stupid skits or talking about ways to increase troop revenue. I feigned a stomachache as soon as we woke up, and the two of us zipped down the tree-lined canopy of the camp like bandits, giddy with our own escape. On the way home, we stopped at McDonald’s and got Egg McMuffins and a cinnamon Danish, and if you asked, I could describe, bite for delicious bite. It all tasted like freedom.
And as a side note, this is one of the things I love most about the childhood I got to have: I had a cool mother who knew who I was and what was and wasn’t important. Spending a tedious afternoon with those earnest Girl Scouts and their earnest mothers was not going to make me a better person. It was not going to build character. It was just going to make me (us) really miserable.
I wish I’d known then about personality types. About introverts and extraverts and INFPs and the Enneagram and how kids from single parent homes maybe saw things differently than “normal” kids. I wish I could have realized that this day of declared independence with Mom was the right path for me and the other days—of which there were so many more—when I tried to contort myself into a box someone else had created for me were the anomalies.
I wish I’d known it was okay to hate schilling Girl Scout cookies. That as an adult I’d make a pledge that my children (imaginary) would never sell anything for any organization until they were adults and could make decisions on their own about how they felt about capitalism. (My imaginary children are very gifted in the arts, but they do not have the skill set to understand things like political theories or when they and their band uniforms are being used to make money for larger corporations.) My face still turns red when I remember asking my paternal grandparents to buy a Girl Scout calendar from me. I knew they didn’t want one. They traveled the country in a tiny Airstream trailer that lacked excess wall space, plus even if there were calendar room, why would two retirees want to spend an entire year looking at photos of girls they were not related to doing activities that the Girl Scout they were related to hated doing? Still, I asked. I had to sell some calendars. So I asked them, as well as my maternal grandparents who I had fewer qualms about asking because I knew they would just fork over the $5 and wouldn’t expect me to really demonstrate any marketing prowess. God bless them for that.
I suspect children inherently know what is right and what isn’t right for them, but grown-ups are forever trying to get them to do the thing that is counter to their own sense of rightness: eat the vegetables, talk to certain safe strangers, play the sport, the instrument, the party piece… Some kids try to be good and acquiesce. Some stick to their stubborn guns. I always felt caught in the middle. It was constantly a war inside me, wanting to give the adults what they wanted all the while telling them I had drawn a line in the sand that I wouldn’t cross: no broccoli, no camp-outs, no making friends with a girl who was acting a fool.
I’m still not sure which side won the war. I’m note even sure if the war is over. Maybe to be human is to house these warring factions inside yourself. Or maybe that is just what it is to be Beth.
I need to look at those badges I earned and see if they add up to me. Was I true to myself and the things I was interested in in 1977 or was I grasping at straws, at badges, at showing others I was a Renaissance girl? What I’m curious about now, as I remake my life is this: do I know who I am—as well as I think I knew myself then—and can I shape this second half into what I want? Should I try harder to put that cooking badge to use and give Z a night off?
Is there a badge for this kind of mid-life inquiry? There should be.