I’m reading The Answer to How is Yes, by Peter Block. It’s been on my “pick it up” list for a handful of years now, so when my fingertips brushed it while shelving, I did so. It’s good stuff.
The section heading I just passed is “Committment without Barter.” I’m going to skip over my usual filling-in; read for yourself how Block articulates both our current work-norms and his (excellent) alternate options. Because anyway: the heading brought my Girl Scout life to mind… and the ‘payment’ I received yesterday.
My ‘payment’ was told from person to person, three removes from the source. The source would, I’m confident, blush deeply if she’d tried to say it to my face. But in a game of thoughtful question-cards, she said that her influences were my friend J and myself, her Girl Scout leaders. Because we were the first to affirm that she could do anything. If she wanted to.
She would have been twelve. That’s when she joined our troop.
The part that intrigues me is that I don’t remember telling anyone she could do anything she wanted to.
I remember saying: If you plan for it, and work for it, we can make it happen.
The chief context for this was a troop appetite for travel that I sparked when they were nine. I had been vision-casting, “big Girl Scouts can do big things,” tossing out the wide array of options for Cadettes (middle-schoolers) and older. Travel was one of many, but it was the one that caught.
“Can we go to Europe?” “If you plan it, we can do it.” “Can we go to South America?” “If you plan it, we can do it.” “Can we go to Japan?” “If you plan it, we can do it. But that means y’all, not me. I’m just here to help you figure it out.”
The next fall, as they started fourth grade, I reminded them of their vision, and pointed out we’d have to start building our skills in order to make it happen. Travel overseas meant first travel across Texas (it’s a big state), and then travel across the U.S., in order to practice for the Big Trip.
We all have to practice. We’re none of us born knowing what to do, though some of us are quick studies.
And practice they did. Galveston by the seat of their pants when they were eleven, Savannah GA as they turned fourteen, and the capstone of the seven-year effort: six Italian cities in ten days the summer before their high school senior year. (“Next time I think I’ll give myself more time, or fewer cities,” one whispered to me on Day Four. I grinned, mostly because she said, “next time,” and not “if”-!)
Mine was committment without barter, absolutely. When one goes into youth work, including and especially child-rearing, one quickly realizes there is no defined payout. One can be as virtuous as humans can be and still watch everything dissolve into chaos. Or horror. This is not a controlled-variable experiment. So the faster one releases that internal hunger for reward, the happier one stays. The young are not grateful. I mean, how grateful are you for air? When working with the young, you are part of the air: invisible, unrecognized, essential.
I have been and continue to be active in Girl Scouting for my own reasons. Committed. To creating a particular space for girls and young women to grow in ways that the rest of our culture has trouble supporting. I have always assumed that, if I was very lucky, I might see one of their names in the media someday and think: there she is! After all, there are about twenty-five women now in their early forties with whom I spent two (three?) troop-years when they were in elementary school. I don’t hear from them; again, why would I?
I watched all these girls try, stretch, and practice all sorts of things, from team games to cooking to bystander intervention to the complexities of group international travel. I know I changed the air these girls breathed, and they are different because of it. That works for me, though I’m triply grateful to get an actual shout-out.
So if you bump into Jeanne Murdock or Diane Blackwood, both of whom lived in Monroeville PA in the 1980s, or even ‘Trip,’ who led a troop in Louisville KY before that, tell them I said hi. That I still use the phrase they used on me, “Huh! Tell me more about how you’ll make that happen.”
Tell them that I used what I practiced with them to start a new career in my 20s, to manage large projects (sometimes for pay!), to turn around and share my practice with other girls.
Tell them that they changed the air I breathed.