There comes a time in every young woman’s life when she must suck it up, be a quitter, and leave the Girl Scouts without looking back. For Julia Langbein, that special time was only a year after she joined. But were the Girl Scouts of America ever more than pint-sized cookie dealers?
The frontispiece of the third edition of Scouting for Girls, published in 1922 by the Girls Scouts organization is an illustration of "Magdelaine [sic] de Verchères, The First Girl Scout in The New World," who according to legend saved her New France fort at the age of 14 from an Iroquois ambush. The year was 1692, and it is unknown whether "Maddy" (as her troop-mates might have called her) had "discover[ed] the fun, friendship, and power of girls together," but she did fire off a couple musket rounds and ignited a cannon. The illustration is based on a bronze sculpture of Vercheres mounted in 1919 in the Quebec town named for her: the first little Girl Scout in a wind-whipped dress striding forward with a rifle in her hands almost the length of her frame.
That same year, the world needed more Madeleine Verchères — so wrote Robert Baden Powell, the founder of the Scout movement, who had fought "the tribes of Zulu or Matabeles" in the Boer wars, where "a number of women volunteered to help my forces...; they were full of pluck and energy but unfortunately they had never been trained to do anything, and so with all the good-will in the world they were of no use." Baden Powell floated how "splendid" it would be "if one could only train them in peace time in the same way one trained the young soldiers..."
If Madeleine Verchères was the model girl for the adults who organized the Scout movement, who is that girl now? Nearly a hundred years ago, Scouting was defined as "wood-craft, handiness and cheery helpfulness" — cauterize a wound with a smile on your face. So what defines it in 2013?
For one thing, cookies, and the ability to sell them. The organization operates Scouts all year and the cookie-selling window is only 8 weeks, but during that time girls land $700 million in cookie sales under the auspices of the green clover in "the premier entrepreneurship opportunity for girls." This is undoubtedly an accurate description of the Girl Scout Cookie Program, since other "entrepreneurship opportunities" for young girls are comparably unattractive. But then, World's Greatest Child Entrepreneur Honey Boo Boo, the seven-year-old media alchemist who has turned ADHD, glycemic crashing, and drawled slurs into the new southern charm, was recently banned from selling them, so entrepreneurship alone doesn't make the cut. Fair enough, Boo Boo was banned from selling because she's not a Girl Scout, but it still looks like she got kicked out of a clique. "Um, Honey? You're not one of us," says the girl on the front of the Thin Mint box: She's cheering as she jumps of a cliff in a harness, right out of a Team Building Ropes Course for Management Unity that Boo Boo was too busy being filmed trying to lick cheese out of her own eye to notice.
Girl Scouts didn't make me feel like a plucky young soldier or like a brassy, competent saleswoman. I felt like a nuisance and a beggar. I was ashamed of bothering people in their homes. I walked around my suburban cul-de-sac holding a clipboard, dressed in my pseudo-military sash and badges, ringing doorbells, a cross between the gas man, Idi Amin, and Cosette. My eyes said to them: "I'm sorry that you committed the accident of living near me." Their eyes, the darting, surprised eyes of the retirees rustled from their sofas at 3:30 pm by the doorbell, said to me: "I'm sorry someone did this to you, but I hate you for making me look around old vases for cash right now." I never sold much, which is fine, because I was a child, and children don't need to be good at selling things. I quit after a year.
The Girl Scout organization is aware that parents have taken over much of the selling of Girl Scout cookies, often through the workplace. Don't sell the cookies for her, they urge, but you may... (the following tips are straight from this parenting guide)
Listen to her practice her sales pitch.
Child: Hi, would you like to buy some Girl Scout Cookies?
Parent: Douche it up a little, honey, I'm not feeling it.
Review cookie materials together and visit Girl Scout Cookie and cookie company Web sites with her to help her learn more about her product.
Child: We've been at the computer for 3 hours, can I go play?
Parent: Sure, you wanna go out there with your pants around your ankles, be my guest, but if I were you I'd know my product portfolio like Sergei Brin knows the route to his yacht.
Ask her questions — maybe even pretend to be a potential customer and do a little role-play!
Parent: Can you tell me whether the chocolate used in Girl Scout Cookies come from cacao beans picked by children?"
Parent: Come ON, Clarissa we went OVER this.
Child: Our licensed bakers continue to work with their primary.. with their primary...
Parent: "Our licensed bakers continue to work with their primary chocolate suppliers on issues of slavery and abusive child labor as it relates to the production and purchase of chocolate." One more time, Clarissa, until you get this right.
Be a role model for business ethics and safety rules!
Child: Can't I just say "no"?
Parent: Yeah, alright, fine, just don't sign anything.
Have fun with her
Parent: I'd prefer that you call me Mrs. Blaine while we're running this. Or just "boss" if that's easier.
I had repressed my Scout history until this Cookie Season, when a neighborhood Boy Scout had rung my mother's doorbell selling popcorn. ("It was $8 and we threw it away. He was so cute. His mother came along. I felt so bad. I should have given a $20 check and not bought this lousy popcorn.")
She revealed, as we started talking about Scouting, that she had been extremely disappointed in my Scout experience, because she grew up in Finland after World War II, where scouting was serious and actual survival had been in question for most adults in recent memory. In the 1950s Madeleine Vercheres might still be needed in Finland — to save her fort from an imaginary Madaleyn Versherski, her red double. The Russian Communists, who had a political foothold after the war even in my mother's Western town of Turku, had launched the Pioneers in 1922, their Scout-like training program for their own wood-crafty and cheerful Communist daughters.
So to be a Girl Scout was to be a "patriot," was to declare one's self not Communist, but my mother says she wasn't aware of the politics when she was Scouting — she was doing something I never did as I sat on floor of a synagogue outside New Haven discussing puberty: She was learning things. They studied music, the constellations, and map-reading. One of the main skills they drilled was orienteering. You got left in a forest and you had to find your way home with a compass. She still uses the compass on the front display of her minivan to navigate highways. In response to "what time is it?" she occasionally looks at the sun.
Much of anyone's Girl Scout experience has to do with the individual troop leader. This is the point of the 1922 Scouting Handbook — to provide the "minimum of standardization necessary for dignified and efficient procedure." I don't know how to measure efficiency in chaperoned after-school socializing, but as for dignity, we opened every troop meeting by singing a Free to Be... You and Me song, "Mommies are People."
"Mommies are people/ people with children/ when mommies were little they used to be girls.../and now mommies are women."
The mommy and daddy in the music video for this song are so embarrassed that at 1:19, they reveal that they are neither the clown-ass parents repeating the literalest biological facts over and over again, but merely singer/actors hired to do so. That is how undignified this song is, that the people singing it disown it after one minute.
But when we spoke over the phone recently about her Scouting days, my mother gave me a description of a Girl Scout that actually made me want to be one. Listen to her describe one particular Girl Scout event:
"I remember I traveled to Eastern Finland all by myself. I took a bus and changed to another bus. I went to a [Girl Scout] camp near Savonlinna. One of the boys and one of the girls got the nicest girl and nicest boy award and of course I go the nicest girl award. I used to get things like that because I was a nice girl."
I was confused by this word “nice” — I’d mostly heard it used to described recently dumped exes (No, Veronica’s really nice, it just didn’t click.”). "What does it mean to be a nice girl?” I asked.
"Being cheerful," she said. "Playing the volley ball when it had to be played."
Playing the volley ball when it had to be played.
She continued, "I remember the boy who got the nicest boy award. He was really awfully nice. I was really hoping he would get the boy award because he was really nice."
Well, for chrissakes, what is a "nice" boy? I ask (Meanwhile my brows are knit because I've never heard anyone discuss "niceness" with so much qualitative texture, so much actual meaning.)
He was "straightforward, pleasant to everybody, never said anything mean about anybody. Nice, cheerful. Good cheer. And I suppose I was the same way."
"So you weren't angling for the nice girl award?" I asked.
"No," she said, "it never crossed my mind. Your self-perception is so different from what others perceive."
"Yeah," I mumbled, "like how I think I'm really nice and then I'm a total bitch."
My mom: "Yeah, you think you should get the award, and then you don't get it."
We both laughed. She excused me for not making it as a Girl Scout: "It wasn't a good fit. You work by yourself better." That is very nice.
Values change, and Baden-Powell's image of a wiry frontierswoman standing up against the "cunning of the Red Man" (yikes) has thankfully obsolesced, like the compass that no one not in a nuclear winter will ever need again. I'm sure there are people who get more out of their current-day Girl Scout troops than I did fifteen years ago — the symbolic cookie crumbles into thousands of differently-managed troops for their 2.3 million enrolled girls, and I am willing to believe that many of them do build “girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place." Here’s hoping they do so by playing the volleyball when it needs to be played, and not just selling it when it needs to be sold.