Epilogue: The Return
James Joyce finished his most famous novel, Ulysses, in 1922, and was so exhausted that didn't write another word for a year. He was forty. The book had taken seven years to complete, without counting the eight years between his original idea and when he began to write. At a staggering 265,000 words, it had so much detail of Dublin's streets the Joyce claimed that the city could be rebuilt from his novel alone. Writing Ulysses had been arduous.
The next year, Joyce began to write again—"with some difficulty," he told a patron. His first day yielded a short sketch and a summer vacation in Sussex produced four others. The next sketch he wrote was "Here Comes Everybody" and involved HCE, who would become the protagonist for his next book, Finnegans Wake.
There are few stranger classics than Finnegans Wake. It is a modernist, stream-of-consciousness text with no central plot or characters. Even Joyce's friends found the book difficult. Its jumps and avant garde style were a departure from the normal laws of storytelling, and the book was sharply criticized. Vladimir Nabokov, the famed Russian writer, called it "nothing but a formless and dull mass of phony folklore, a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room…and only the frequent snatches of heavenly intonation redeem it from utter insipidity." This was one of the kinder reviews.
But there were a few who vouched for the novel's artistry. Thornton Wilder, the writer of Our Town, was the most prominent advocate at the outset, but a an New York-born professor named Joseph Campbell became its most famous. Campbell admired the book and co-authored an analysis of it, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, with Henry Morton Robinson in 1944. Until that publication, most praise of Joyce's novel had focused on the novel's themes since the plot seemed fragmented and nonexistent. Campbell and Robinson went page by page through the book, commenting on its language and offering plot interpretations. Gradually, the furor over Finnegans Wake died down and critical praise began to rise.
Five years later, Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, his most influential work. The book popularized "the hero's journey" or "monomyth", a term Campbell borrowed from Finnegans Wake. "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder," wrote Campbell. "Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man." If this sounds like the plot for Star Wars, it's because George Lucas (among many others) was strongly influenced by Campbell's ideas and acknowledged that the themes of his trilogy reflected the hero's journey. The book has become famous, though Joyce's word "monomyth" has largely been replaced "the hero's journey."
In its most basic form, this journey has three steps: departure, initiation, and return. Boys State is the initiation. It occupies the space between leaving and return. We've talked previously about the expiration date of a delegate's experience. Boys State lasts for six days. We try to put as much high-quality content as we can into those days and give delegates the best we can, but Friday always happens. There will be a final handshake between counselor and delegate (maybe a hug) and a departure. Our job as staff members and a program will be complete.
The journey of the delegate—and the staff member—will not be complete.
And it's those car rides home, tired and a mix of emotions, when eyes get heavy and miles seem like hours, when the questions arise. What did I learn this week? How did the week shape the future and my future? Staff members ask themselves even more questions. Did I do a good job teaching my delegates? Why do I come back each year? Each person has a different answer, which changes with experience.
For me, the answer is found in the stories of Boys State.
L. Matthew Dunovant IV was a well-built man. It was no surprise when he said that he wrestled and played football; his sculpted shoulders and forearms had given that away. He was elected guide-on bearer and was walking next to me as we went to lunch. I tried to strike up some conversation. "What position do you play?"
"Linebacker," he said. It was not unfriendly, just quietly matter-of-fact. I asked him what linebacker spot he played.
L. Matthew Dunovant IV, strongside linebacker from West Orange, was not given to many words. But he stood to his full height, walked confidently, and spoke with composure. It was no surprise that he was party's nominee for mayor or that he won. The next night, he became his county's nominee for county executive and won it the following day. As he talked with other people in his city and county and worked on solving the issues, he began to relax. He stood as tall as ever but moved less stiffly. He smiled more honestly and often. A teenager has to grow into their own body; Matt had to grow into his own personality.
Matt had no interest in being governor; he was too invested in city and county affairs and didn't want to leave his duties there. He was mildly interested about Boys Nation senator so we gently encouraged him to think about it. After a day of thought, he agreed. As he had done so many times before, Matt prepared and presented well, calmly outlining his positions clearly to the assembled delegates, and was rewarded with a victory.
Matt returned to the city for his diploma long after others with a disbelieving smile and bear-hugged each of the counselors. "Man, I can't believe it!" he said repeatedly. "Thank you all so much. You guys were so helpful."
The next year, L. Matthew Dunovant returned to Boys State in a suit and spoke about his Boys Nation experience. He wanted to come back on staff but was scheduled to enroll at the Naval Academy in nine days and had too much to do before he left. One night was all he could spare.
I was talking with Matt afterward when a delegate came up to ask him a question. Matt turned to him, and then I saw the difference. The delegate looked up nervously, with wide eyes, and stammered out his question. Matt looked at the delegate and answered him calmly. They were a year apart in age, but Matt had become a man. There was no doubt. The "everybody chill out, I've got this" vibe that he had as a delegate was still there, but it was amplified by his confidence. It looked unfair to place him next to a delegate—unless you remembered him as a delegate and realized how he had grown from his week here.
That night, I went back to my city smiling like Matt.
A common fear of many Boys State delegates is that they will prepare well for an election and present their position clearly, only to lose to someone who makes the voters laugh. This is not unique to a year or political level. I have heard both city council candidates and gubernatorial candidates afraid of this. The fear is not without reason. Most positions are elected before the halfway of the week. The early elections take place before the delegates have gotten to know candidates more closely, so they fall back on personality and perceptions. The loose, funny guy wins; the nervous, serious guy loses. It's not the rule or even the pattern but it's a memorable nightmare. Some delegates never shake it.
Eric Loverro walked into the room and slumped into a chair, shaking his head. It was Thursday afternoon. In a few hours, Eric would go on the Yvonne Theater stage alongside eight other Federalist delegates. Two Boys Nation Senator nominations were at stake.
We all knew Eric was smart enough to get a nomination. The first day, he had spoken up during the debate about city government types, deconstructing an opposing argument and giving detailed suggestions. He had done the same thing that night in the city party meeting, and his party practically installed him as city party chairman on the spot. He became mayor and senator because people trusted his ability to quickly evaluate issues and make good decisions.
But then he ran for Governor. He woke up early and got the required signatures, arriving back at the dorm exhausted, hungry, and smiling, but lost the nomination to someone who cracked a good joke. Eric grudgingly agreed to be the Lieutenant Governor on the ticket. The ticket lost the election.
After the election, the party leadership asked Eric to run for Boys Nation senator. They promised to help with signatures and would try to ensure he became a candidate for the nomination. Eric was ambivalent. If he got enough signatures, he would go up against the party's gubernatorial candidate. (The losing governor is automatically a candidate for his party's Boys Nation senator bids.) It would be same battle all over again.
Once again, Eric grudgingly agreed and collected the signatures, but he was clearly rattled by his previous loss. "It's just stupid. You can give the best answers but nobody cares. Nobody listens. They're just going to vote for the guy who's funny."
"And even if I get through tonight, the same thing could happen tomorrow?"
This is when years of experience become valuable.
"I wouldn't worry about tomorrow," I said. "People are tired. They're really tired on Friday morning, and that debate usually ends up going to the people who can talk clearly. You know your stuff. Everyone knows you know your stuff. You'll be fine."
Eric looked suspicious.
"Look," I said, "you don't need to beat him tonight. If you get in the top two, you're in. And people have seen you in the senate and the lieutenant governor debate. They know you're smart. Do your best and you'll be fine."
Eric won the party nomination but went into the final debate mildly. His opening remarks were good but uncertain. But as the debate went on, Eric grew bolder. He recognized that he was one of the two best candidates and his answers had more inflection and power. He was going to take the opening. By the end of the debate, there was little doubt who the two senators were going to be. Eric's perseverance and effort had paid off. He was going to Washington—where, he told us, he hoped to become Boys Nation President.
It didn't happen. But he still got there.
Two weeks ago, I stood in a church vestibule, talking with Eric Kamoga. Eric is from Uganda and came to this country on a visa to go to seminary. He's picked up a good amount of American culture from being here but there's no doubt that he's not from this country. The way he converses, focusing closely on whoever he is politely listening to, seems out of place in Northeastern culture. I felt that focus as I tried to explain why I probably would't see him before he returned to Uganda.
"I'll be up at Boys State next week," I said. Explaining Boys State takes a little bit of time, so I often try to avoid leading people (as a good Northeasterner should). It didn't work. Eric tilted his head slightly and asked, "what is Boys State?"
"It's a civics program for high school juniors," I said. "It was founded by the American Legion to teach people about civic responsibility and the political system. There's lots of seminars and speakers. The governor even came down last year and spoke. I was a delegate when I was eligible and I've gone back since then as a staff member."
Eric smiled. "Thank you!" he said. "Wow. That is a good program. Thank you."
This caught me off guard because I'm not used to being thanked (compliments about the program are more common) and because I'm used to being the one thankful for the program. The program means a lot to me and to all the staff members who volunteer their time each June. Coming back and helping out feels like the natural thing to do. Communicating my love for this program can be hard. There is no common frame of reference that they can relate to. To many, Boys State is that something I do each year in June.
But thankfulness is why I come back, year after year. It's the reason most staff members come back. Some had a good time as a delegate and want to experience it again. Relationships with staff members play an important role; no one will volunteer to spend time with people they don't get along with. But ultimately, people come back because they want to give delegates the same joy they experienced as a part of Boys State. We want the delegates sitting where we sat to have their world expanded and challenged, as ours was. We want them to return home with a greater understanding of what patriotism, respect for veterans, hard work, and civic responsibility look like. We want them to take those lessons and become leaders in their lives, families, and communities, spreading those values to everyone around them. Our time with them is done, but their journey is not complete.
For most men, Boys State happens once. Consequently, there is only one return because only one place has a place in their hearts. But for the staff, there are two returns: the return home on Friday and the return to Rider University next June. We are living between two worlds, taking what we learn and experience from one to the other. Each return is bittersweet because it removes us from something we love while giving something of its own. Boys State is exhausting but it is a wonderful chance to witness the growth of America's next generation of leaders and help to guide them as they start to step out on their own.
This is not just a politics camp. This is the transition to adulthood, and what we do in this week shapes the future of a thousand young men. All of us are more than willing to trade our short sleep for that. The chance to see young men mature like Matt and Eric did is worth it.
Our return to our homes is where we apply the lessons of Boys State to ourselves, but our return to this program is our chance to give those lessons to others and we're thankful for each opportunity to do it.
Let's do this again soon, gentlemen, with others.
originally posted June 22, 2012 1600