News Archive

Prologue: Life Lessons

Article by
Ty Clark

American Legion Jersey Boys State is a week late this year. Normally, the week of Boys State begins on Father’s Day but, due to Rider University hosting the Special Olympics, we’re starting on the fourth Sunday in June instead of the third.

To most of our readers, this won’t make much difference. It’s your first interaction with our program and, to you, this is the way things have always been. But for us on staff, this feels very different. This is the first time in years that we’ve been able to spend Father’s Day with our families and not with 1,000 delegates. Instead of calling our fathers to wish them a happy Father’s Day, we were able to spend time with them. It was an unexpected treat.

Another unexpected treat was watching other fathers spend time with their kids. I’m not sure if I was more alert to this because my normal rhythms were broken but I saw lots of dads interact with their kids, especially with young children.

Mostly, I watched how they instructed their kids and tried to communicate important information. It didn’t always work. Kids are kids, and they don’t always understand or agree with what you’re saying. Even the most important instructions—those preceded with a solemn look, The Daddy Voice, and a "This is important, OK?"—are often only partially absorbed. I saw "Don’t wander off while I’m talking to this adult." be interpreted as "You can run up and down the block since I’m not directly looking at you and thus am ok with you doing what you want." In one ear, partially comprehended, out the other, and playtime!

Father’s Day didn’t shake my hopes for the future of the human race but it did make me somewhat amazed that parents are able to adjust their child’s behavior over time. The short term results weren’t encouraging but parenting is a long-term process. Even if the lessons stick, the results don’t always show.

I don’t remember anywhere close to everything my dad told me. I don’t remember some things that were probably very important. But there are some things I remember very clearly.

"Experience is a painful teacher, too painful to pay twice."

My dad is a careful person. Before purchasing anything, he will research it meticulously, combing through vaults of internet pages for information, reviews, and recommendations in making a decision. He wants to know what he’s getting into. This doesn’t mean that he hasn’t bought things that turned out badly, but these have been the exception. Even when things don’t go well, he can usually analyze what went wrong and adjust from it, which is a skill he values highly. To him, making a mistake a second time is a mild blunder. You should be alert enough to what’s happening and why it’s happening to adjust to something similar happening in the future. Or, as he also said, "To be forewarned is to be forearmed."

No one is completely forearmed when they walk into Boys State; there are plenty of challenges for even the most senior staff member. We all adjust to things as they arise, we all make mistakes, and we all have to learn from those experiences. A delegate who makes a mistake while campaigning can adjust his tactics in the next race or find another area to help out in. Staff members who make mistakes managing delegates get to learn from those experiences in future years.

But for all men, Friday is final. This isn’t Groundhog Day. We have one week to play the hand given to us and face the consequences of our actions.

Dealing with consequences and learning from your mistakes is an essential part of growing up. David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University, discovered that kids who played on asphalt as youths had fewer fears of heights when they got older, were more likely to be active, and better understood the dangers of falling on asphalt. Through their little falls, they learned to avoid serious falls and injury.

So it is with Boys State. Inevitably, some experiences will be painful. We all experience regret over things done and not done, words spoken, and what we did with our time. But those experiences shape us, in ways we don’t always expect, for longer than we think.

"Actions speak louder than words."

This is a standard parental sentiment but I don’t remember my dad saying it too often. He mostly used it in two situations: if I was apologizing for disobedience while still not obeying or if I didn’t understand who was being a good friend to me.

This saying has taken some time to sink in and, like the child of the 1990s that I am, I blame the 1990s for that. My generation is cynical and sarcastic. We suspect most people and all authority figures of having ulterior motives. To us, a phrase like this seems wrong; people lie with both their actions and their words. Wise creatures that we are, we trust neither.

It’s certainly possible to walk into American Legion Jerse Boys State with a healthy amount of cynicism. After all, it is a politics camp, and the current state of politics in this country is loggerheaded and belligerent. Politicians are many, civil servants are few. A camp built around politics would seem to attract the wrong kind of people.

And yet, that’s not what you find. Each year, we get a new group of excellent delegates who care about their city, state, and nation. They get involved and invested in this fictional scenario, trying hard to solve the problems they are given by working together with others. They pass staggering amounts of legislation in a short time period.

Of course there are detestable delegates and situations. This is life. But for the most part, the delegates are great and the program runs well. Many parts of ALJBS are worthy of praise and attention.

In my writing for this program, I try to focus on the praiseworthy things and the reasons for having a Boys State program to begin with. Like Olympic journalist Bud Greenspan, I choose to concentrate 100 percent of my time on the 90 percent of the ALJBS experience that is good. Make no mistake: this is not hype, nor is it treacle. It is built on honesty, thankfulness, and hope.

At Boys State, we have tried to build a program that honestly depicts the best of the American political system we believe in. So far, the results have been encouraging. Why wouldn't we be proud?

"Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves."

I don’t really remember how my parents raised me. I remember events and images from childhood but I don’t know or remember any kind of systematic master plan of child-rearing. If they had something like this, I am the oblivious product of it.

Most of the instructions I remember came after an event and were usually in reference to that event. Look at people when they’re talking to you. Don’t take your neighbor's toys. The instructions might have illustrated a larger point but they were more focused on an individual situation.

The bigger lessons tended to come on their own through experience. My parents might have addressed those issues but the lessons didn't sink in until later. They didn’t have an active role in teaching those lessons to me.

One of the essential parts of being an ALJBS counselor is to let them have their own week. As much as we want to ensure they don’t make the same errors we did, our influence is limited. It works better when we step back, too. Micromanaging delegates does not work. The delegates are near-adults and rightfully don’t appreciate our meddling.

We want each delegate to get that deep understanding of the themes of ALJBS that we have but that doesn’t happen when we browbeat them with those themes at every possible occasion. They’ll have to learn them over time. We do the best we can; as for the rest, God is in the details.

Generally, this works out. Most delegates seem to understand what we’re talking about and respond back to us. Watching the light bulb go on is one of the most rewarding parts of the week to us on staff.


We spend a lot of time thinking about our fathers here at Boys State. I hope you can see why. Between the week’s traditional start date, the didactic nature of the program, and our dads’ effects on us, this program owes a lot to men who never participated in it. The chance to have a Father’s Day home with those men this year was special.

But now it’s a week later. The delegates are arriving and the program is about to kick into high gear. It’s time for life lessons and short sleep. It’s time to shape the future.

originally posted June 22, 2014 0800