In 1687, Sir Isaac Newton published his three-volume Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Principia, as it is often called, was one of the first books to apply mathematical principles to science. Newton outlined concepts like gravity, acceleration, inertia, fluid dynamics, and the motions of celestial bodies with mathematical proofs and equations to back up his observation. Principia didn’t just change what scientists believed; it changed how they studied and defended their theories. Most science since Newton has been built on his ideas and the structure of his arguments. Newton’s Principia changed how we view and study the world.
And then Albert Einstein blew up that view of the world a little over two hundred years later.
Einstein didn’t entirely displace Newton’s theories but his theory of relativity superseded certain parts of Newton’s ideas. Einstein had calculated that the speed of light was the same everywhere, which meant that everything else in the universe was is variable. Nothing is fixed. Everything is relative-including time. As you move faster and faster and get close to the speed of light, time actually slows down. The effect is small unless you’re near or above the speed of light but it does exist. Everything experiences time a little differently.
American Legion Jersey Boys State only appears to be moving at the speed of light but the effect is the same. Statesmen experience the week of Boys State differently than the staff. To most statesmen, ALJBS is a six day period of time with a beginning and end in between a lot of other things. It is a single event. To staff, however, ALJBS is the third week of June each year. Each session is a single event but it’s part of a series. To staff members, today is an ALJBS Friday. To statesmen (and families), this is The Last Day Of Boys State. One is “Game Over. Continue?” while the other is “The End.”
Ends are odd things. They help put things in perspective but they can also make us wistful for another chance. We want to go back and tell our past self to do something different because we now understand the world around us better. The consequences of our actions have become clear.
And as the connections start lining up for us and we begin to see how the world works and understand what we could do better next time and what to avoid and where we fit in everything, the end hits us again. It is over.
I’ve driven home from Boys State on Friday as a delegate and a staff member. I vastly prefer the drive as a staff member. It is much, much easier to go home when I have the benefit of experience to interpret what happened and know that I’ll get to come back next year for another chance.
But the one thing that always unsettles me, the one thought that keeps coming into my head, is “Did they understand what they experienced? Did I help them understand it?”
Throughout the week, we try to help the statesmen understand what they experienced, preferably before they leave. It’s why we emphasize and re-emphasize the importance of getting involved early. One week is not much time, so every minute that that a statesman can get a little bit closer to understanding why he’s here, why we’re here, and why this program is still here is critical.
Our goal is to get the light bulb to come on for as many delegates as possible. We want them to become better citizens, leaders, followers, helpers, protectors, and whatever else they’ll be.
These things are hidden in plain sight throughout the week of ALJBS, and they become clear to people at different stages. Things like the political process are very clear: we’re teaching how to work together, succeed and fail and keep going at something, be accountable to others, and become a leader. Respect for veterans and their service is also obvious.
But other things are less clear and take some time, even a few years, to fully make sense. When you’ve been here a few years, you begin to see the themes and meanings of events. You start noticing that the Municipal Courts, although often rambunctious, help bond a city together. The band concert on Wednesday night does the same thing for the state as a whole. In fact, you notice that the week is structured in an ever-enlarging view, starting with an individual at registration, then an individual in a small group of friends (city events), neighbors and acquaintances (county), and finally strangers (state). We learn what it means to be part of different types of groups, even a seemingly insignificant one, while maintaining our uniqueness.
That’s heady stuff, and it’s stuff the now-alumni are going to be learning experientially as they go off to college and beyond. They may not realize that their week at Boys State prepared them for the upcoming events but it will.
This is why we call our program “a week that shapes the future.” It’s not just because it shapes the trajectory of our alumni’s careers and personal lives, though it certainly has done that. But Boys State aims deeper, at the heart of identity, and gives us an opportunity to figure out who we are and how we fit into society.
Find me another program that gives nearly 1,000 young men this kind of opportunity for self-discovery each year and gets the results we do.
We come back on staff because we have been changed by the ALJBS experience and want others to experience it as well. But as we return, year by year, we learn more and more about the program and about ourselves too. That’s something we never expect. No matter how long you’ve been helping out at Boys State, you get to learn more about yourself.
Like we tell our statesmen, you get out of the program what you put in. We put in hard work and get rewarded by the experience and by increased self-understanding. Sometimes these lessons take a while to sink in. I was a couple years into my career writing technical documentation when I realized that one of the first technical documents I wrote was my city’s manual at Boys State more than ten years earlier. And just as my Boys State “career” has taken a few turns, so has my regular career. I’ve grown alongside and through the program, just like my fellow staff members.
Youth may be wasted on the young but an experience, if learned from, is never wasted. Whatever happened to you this week at Boys State, I sincerely hope that, at some point, you’ll be able to look back and see where this fits in a broader picture. I hope you’re able to understand the meaning behind the events of the busy week you just went through. We’re more than willing to talk with you about them. And I hope you come back on staff next year so you can keep about yourself while you’re helping others learn about themselves.
ALJBS will always be one week. That’s the constant. But the effect of it will always be different for each person. Coming back and seeing those effects one, two, five, ten, twenty years out is what makes this a wonderful, beautiful week. Won’t you join us?