Prologue: Similarity and Contrast

I leaned over and smacked the button on the alarm clock, silencing its unwanted braaping. It was 6:09am. I set the alarm for that time, not a number ending in five or zero, because I’ve had alarm clocks that occasionally didn’t go off on those numbers, leaving me stranded or hopelessly late. Since those incidents, I’ve always programmed my alarms to go off close to the desired time but not exactly on the time. This alarm gives me an hour and a half before I need to be on my way to work.

I merged onto the highway leading to the bridge. There’s a two-mile stretch of road between the interstate and the bridge. It’s two lanes, with a fifty-five mile per hour speed limit. The bridge exit is on the right, an extra lane that forms immediately after one of the local roads merges with the highway. Because of the short distance, exit location, and speed of the cars, it’s best to stay in the right lane as much as possible because going to the left lane and coming back to the right in time is difficult. But being in the right lane sometimes means getting stuck behind a car or truck going ten miles per hour under the speed limit. You can get around them and back into place, depending on how much road is left before the exit and how the cars are spaced in the two lanes. Evaluating the potential success of this maneuver takes experience and practice. Sometimes you can escape and pass a slow mover. But most days, it’s better to stay in the right lane. The left lane is the promise of euphoric autonomy with an option for anguish and failure; the right lane is the stolid achievement of a necessary end.

We humans notice patterns everywhere. From the spacing of cars on a highway to the correlation between faulty alarms and being late for events (I will go to my grave maintaining that it was the alarm’s fault) to the placement of punctuation in sentences, we connect the dots in every situation.

There’s a word for this—apophenia, the “universal human tendency to seek dots in random information”—and a lot of research to go along with it. Researchers at the University of Texas – Austin asked students to find images in television static; the students always found images, even if none were present. Other researchers at Duke University discovered chemical reactions to breaking patterns; when a pattern was broken, the prefrontal cortex in a subject’s brain lit up. Football quarterbacks are perhaps the best-known examples of pattern finders; they watch film and study playbooks so they can see a defensive formation or a tight end’s route adjustment and instantly know where to throw the football.

Pattern recognition is built on similarity and contrast: is there a logical pattern in what I’m seeing? Does it fit another logical pattern? Is it different or does it just appear different at first glance? Or, to use an everyday example, are the cars around me spaced so I can pass the dump truck in front of me before the bridge exit?

Each day, we make thousands of these evaluations and decisions. Similarity and contrast form the basis of our work and leisure.

Similarity and contrast also make for fascinating art. Great artists and designers understand how to use similarity to highlight a particular, contrasting detail or how the entirety of their art contrasts with what exists in the world. And there’s a reason why the Periodic Table of Storytelling Elements lists “Conflict” as its number one element. Conflict is the effect of the contrast between a character’s goals and his or her present situation. It is at the heart of all good drama.

And boy, do we have good drama here at American Legion Jersey Boys State. All the themes you could want are here, paired off beautifully: order and chaos, leaders and followers, youth and age, the individual and the collective, what you were before ALJBS and what you are at ALJBS, what you want from this week and what you will get.

That last contrast is often the hardest. Though there are copious opportunities for delegates to get involved, not everyone will get the chance to do what they wanted. Some will lose all the elections they run for. Others will win them all. Some delegates will get involved, discover that it’s not what they wanted to do, and recoil while others push through. No one gets the Boys State experience they expected, which means no one ends the week the same person as when they started.

As staff members, we guide the delegates through the week, helping to make sense of things. As they experience Boys State, we try both to underline certain themes ourselves and to gently probe at their experiences, helping them to think through what they’ve seen and what they want to be at Boys State and beyond.

We do this because beyond exists. Boys State is a week—a finite element of time—that shapes the future—an infinite length of possibilities. We get your sons, students, relatives, and friends for a week. But after Friday, they return to you. We hope they’ve changed for the better. We hope that the ALJBS experience will have made them better citizens and leaders.

All of us are proof of that. We come back because the program changed us and we want to help other young men experience that change. One of the great parts of being a staff member is the opportunity to see people each year and watch them develop into better men. From year to year, the contrasts are subtle but noticeable. Over time, they are massive.

The long-term effect of a single week at American Legion Jersey Boys State on the life of a delegate is the most sharply defined contrast we provide.

The most sharply defined similarity is our history of doing this, year by year, to thousands of young men, for seventy years.

The messages of ALJBS are old but do not grow old. Family, country, responsibility, sacrifice, and respect for elders have and will be around for years to come. But they have to be taught and passed down. They are always out there, waiting for someone to make the connections and discover them for the first time.

That is why we are here. This week, those connections will snap into place for someone and everything will become immediately clear. For others, it will take time to reach that level of understanding. Our goal and our joy is to see it happen for both groups. That’s what we’re going to do this week. Won’t you join us?