May The Circle Be Unbroken

Another June means another year of Boys State, which means that we get to answer questions from our friends about the program. “Oh yeah, that’s that thing you do in the summer, whatsitcalled” is the primary one, but others include “How big is it again?” and “How long have you been doing that?” Our friends refresh their memory of this thing that means a lot to us but is lost on them, and the conversation shifts. But sometimes, there’s a rhetorical question at the end: “Kinda weird for it to start on Father’s Day, isn’t it?”

At one level, yes, it is a little strange for a program called Boys State to split fathers and sons on Father’s Day. There are many staff members who haven’t celebrated Father’s Day with their kids as long as their kids have been alive—to say nothing of the delegates who leave their families to come here. And yes, there are reasons we do it this week. For one, it happens before a lot of summer activities get underway. It’s also a week that works well for our host college. Although the third week of June is warm, it’s not as hot as it can be in July and August, which is more bearable and safer for everyone involved.

But the decision to start on Father’s Day is also a meaningful one. Ask any staff member with kids about Father’s Day and their kids and they will instantly access a depth of feeling and reflectiveness, slow down, and talk softly about those feelings. The older a dad’s kids, the more quiet emotion you’ll hear from the dad. For us, Boys State is linked with Father’s Day, and returning to it year after year reveals things that aren’t as clear from a glance.

For one, it helps to demonstrate some of the qualities of good dads to our statesmen. Our counselors are modeling what it looks like to take responsibility for their own jobs and also for others. The first part is an essential part of being a productive member of society, the latter is a step that shows someone has able to understand the impact their actions have on others and for others. It’s a sign of maturity and willingness to do what is needed for others to flourish. This is a lesson both for our statesmen but also our junior staff as they watch their senior counselors guide their group and be accountable for them. Done well, it also shows respect for others: instead of trying to micromanage everything, the counselors understand that they can’t control or change people and trust them to behave wisely. All these are essential things to understand as a dad setting the tone for a family.

The goal of all this, of course, is to influence behavior. We want to be an example of the things we want to pass on in hopes that others will take the lessons to heart and apply them in their own lives. The Boys State program itself is built around this idea. We teach the things that we believe matter so that they will be preserved for the following generations. We aren’t doing this on our own; we learned these from our dads and forerunners, and we are doing the same for those who come after us. Responsibility mixes with loyalty. Even if this is the only week in a statesmen’s life where he sees these good traits modeled well, then hopefully this week lingers and gets repeated.

And that is the goal of fatherhood: to pass things on. A son carries his family’s name, which is a living reference to all those who came before him. Since no one lives forever, we carry the fire until the next generation can (and we show and train them on how to do it). Some will pick up the torch before they’re ready, but the timing does not matter. All will have to pick it up at some point. The father’s job is to make his children ready, understanding and appreciating the task, and able to do the job. It is a role that looks backwards to the past and forwards to the future at all times.

This year, Father’s Day falls on Juneteenth. Though these two holidays have different focuses, the thread of looking backwards and forwards stretches between them. Juneteenth is a hopeful holiday, remembering a moment where hope became realized and the future opened in a way it was not before. It recalls those who labored under the system before it, it remembers those who struggled against it, and it rejoices in the changed world that followed it. It too is a living memory.

As we know all too well, our world still has many things wrong in it. So do our fathers. Part of maturity is being able to understand our parents better, appreciating their foibles alongside their sacrifices, and choosing to return to them in love. The past is not forgotten, but we set our affections towards the good and work to make it better. Just as we are part of our fathers’ stories, we are part of our nation’s story. We seek to love well, in clear-eyed, honest, intentional effort, repeated over years until the virtuous rhythms have become second nature.

And truthfully, we need multiple people to help us with this. Our fathers bear the primary responsibility and do a lot for us. But we need interactions with others to help us understand our fathers better, to understand ourselves better, and to understand our connection to our fathers better. We need others to model good things so that others might learn what is worth remembering and worth doing. These are not things written on cave walls seeming to come to life as the light flickers; these are virtues embodied in flesh and blood people, living among us. And hopefully, by the end of the week, these virtues will be embodied by even more people. They will stand in the tradition of Boys State Alumni, our family name of sorts passed on to the world, and will represent our influence to others.

Then we’ll go home and tell our kids all about what happened. Hopefully they’ll want to come along too.