I marched forward, clipboard and whistle in hand, scanning a place familiar to me: the track. The track is the place where I spent innumerable hours during my high school years, participating on the cross-country and track teams. Here I was, back on the track, two decades later.
I turned back and what did I see? Jitters. A gaggle of Boy Scouts, many of whom had never donned athletic gear before, and certainly not for the purpose of being scrutinized by a boisterous, cantankerous, loud-mouthed coach (me). They gulped and fidgeted and generally looked nervous. It had never occurred to me when I volunteered that some of these boys had never had a coach beyond a kindly P.E. teacher. Some of them had never played a sport or really ever competed. Nervous anticipation shivered through them as they wondered, “What’s next?”
I’m a sports and athletics merit badge counselor for our local Boy Scout troop. I must confess that I like winning something more than a teeny, weeny little bit. It juices me up. I thrive on it. I love the emotion and drama of a contest. Contrary to my own love of competition, however, I could sense the building dread in some of the boys as we began to do the dynamic warm-up, stumbling through the karaoke foot drills.
I took a deep breath and reminded myself that today, we weren’t here to win; the boys were taking a step towards achievement. In the scouting program, there are 130 merit badges to be had. They can “scout” about a variety of topics as broad as animal science, welding and cinematography. For this first phase of the Athletics Field Day, like any of the scouting endeavors, each boy came to find something within himself.
As we worked through the stations — baseball throw, soccer ball kick, long jump, running long jump, 100-meter dash and 200-meter run, it became apparent that even though the field was not even in terms of natural talent, each boy had something that made him stand out, something that was his own, and worthy of knucks and a high five.
Personal fitness is an important aspect of scouting that the organization works to impart to the boys and girls who participate in the program. Kids do not compete against one another so much as each one strives to get better. The boys select a series of events and 90 days later, they must demonstrate improvement. It’s the work that happens in-between that makes a difference. Learning self-discipline and working towards a goal is a battle for adults. Robert Baden Powell, the founder of the scouting movement, once remarked, “It’s easier to build a boy than repair a man”.
Well, looking at my saggy muscles and waistline, the result of too much time behind a keyboard and LED screen, I volunteer with the Scouts for the opportunity to focus on both the build and the repair. As a volunteer, sometimes you learn more about living through giving than the participants do (clearly I didn’t break a sweat on that Field Day). So what did I get out of my time on that blustery day on the track?
90 days later it became abundantly clear: Every child runs his or her own race, with support from family, friends and community. I’ll never forget the simple inspiration on their faces as the boys struggled down the track, working to beat their records, and the magical glows on their faces when they found out they’d achieved their goals.
Merit by one definition is “value that deserves respect and acknowledgment.” For their efforts, these boys have mine.
“Follow Me, Boys!” (pictured in the stills accompanying this piece) one of Norman Tokar’s masterfully directed Disney films, stars Fred MacMurray, Vera Miles, Lillian Gish and Kurt Russell, and is considered by many to be the best Scouting movie of all time.