Sunday, June 2, 2013

The State Of Boys -- Part II: "You're Trying Your Best"

I'm sharing my experiences of attending the 1989 Missouri Boys' State session. Our last episode found me playing cub reporter to cub lawmakers. Detached from the action, and still trying to figure out how to be a journalist while learning how to be a citizen, I badly need to land somewhere...

Gradually the pieces of the mock state come together in meetings as the week rolls on. The parties pick their county leaders and hold a state convention. With the pols in place, the nominations and appointments follow for the legislature, as well as the Mayor, City Manager, Councilmembers, City Attorney, Police Chief, Fire Chief, Health Commissioner, Treasurers, Sheriff, and Municipal Judge, working our way up to the state offices including the Governor's post.

The parties develop platforms, sometimes out of nothing more than competitive advantage. "The other party says they're for abortion. Well, we're going to be against it!"

My roommate Paul, with his quiet charisma, winds up as the chief justice of the Boys' State Supreme Court. He even reminds me of Thurgood Marshall, then heading into his twilight years on the bench. (Clarence Thomas is still two years away from picking up a Supreme Court nomination.)

All of this should be nice fodder for a few insider political stories, but I don't have my news sense yet, and my reservedness holds me back. The citizenship manual doesn't do much to encourage me:
"Writing interesting stories about events that have occurred at Missouri Boys' State probably is more difficult than anywhere else, because the writer's audience usually had attended the event on which he is reporting. Therefore, for a reporter simply to write what happened at the event is not 'news.'"
Neither is dishy political gossip. We are Missouri's best young leaders, not backstabbing, power-hungry pols in training. What in the heck am I supposed to write about?

Perhaps I should try the sports beat, volunteering to observe and report. Surely I can write about the games better than I can play them. My baseball skills have me hitting nothing but air and catching nothing but sunshine. But I can't opt out; everybody is expected to play, scrub or not.

Coming up to the plate, I know I'm doomed as that white ball zings past me. Oh for YMCA tee-ball, where you could just smack it and run.

"It's all right," a fellow citizen reassures. "You're trying your best."

Several tell me that, and I am blessed to be surrounded by young leaders who knew some boys don't fit into the athlete mold. Many of us are tomorrow's geeks, on our way to owning half the world at a time when nerds represent the heights of uncoolness.

I fill the days out serving on mock juries in the court system, watching mock judges and mock lawyers adjudicate mock criminal cases as the student lawmakers wheel and deal and pass bills. After lunch, I headed over to TV station to help Matthew and the crew produce news and commercials as an ad-hoc crew member.

The commercials keep us busy. Everyone in Boys' State earns "Boys State Bucks," a token economy to be spent for campaigning and adverts in the newspaper, radio and TV outlets. Cities pool their dough to buy rah-rah spots, a constant headache to Caleb, our news director, who's trying to get the rest of the content taped before dinner.

"After this, no more commercials!" he grumbles one day, walking out of the control room. He takes on some of the qualities of his real-life broadcast counterparts, griping at the staff because the scripts aren't in-depth enough. He snipes at a few city leaders who turn a news interview into a plug.

Matthew and I sit on the stairs outside the VTR suite and sort through all the money dumped into our laps for ad time. "Man, you can be my accountant!" he proclaims.

A few KMOS staffers hastily edit what we crank out, and we see the results after dinner, before the evening's speaker as part of "KMBS News." With no field video cameras, we are constrained to a series of talking heads against a blue backdrop, except for the Boys' State sports reports. They featured honest-to-goodness full-screen scoreboards from that nifty Dubner, which draws an audible gasp from the audience as the text rolls and twirls.

Then we hear from the night's speaker, usually a high-ranking lawmaker at the state and federal level or a retired pol, at least one of whome is not too far from the scandal sheet. He -- and occasionally a she -- speaks to us about the joys and challenges of service, after which the floor opens for questions.

"All the tension between Republicans and Democrats," I query one legislator from my young, idealistic mind. "Is it really necessary?"

He replies that both sides are trying to serve the public, but that the Dems "want to make all the rules." Cheers burst out from the Republicans in the crowd, amazingly evenly divided between real-world party loyalties.

Candidates for Boys' State Governor come to the stage and give us their best campaign speeches. One of them, "Famous Amos," becomes the stand-out hit for the way he turns around a snarky question from the audience.

"Sir, I believe that is uncalled for!"

He gets a rousing cheer, and the snarker later buys a TV ad to apologize. While it runs during the newscast, various boys in the crowd smack their lips, the adopted symbol for "kissing up."

Some presentations during the daytime have us talking at the dinner table. "Goober" shows us how not to make a campaign speech. I also hear about a certain "Pastor Fuzz" who is part of a demonstration for the mock lawmen detailing arrest procedure. "Big 'ol Budweiser suspenders," one boy says, recounting either the suspect or the session leader. "He held up this porno mag he found."

It's not supposed to be offensive; it's supposed to be a goad to us, our counselors explain. If we are offended, it's time to debate the matter and write bills and discuss the Constitution, just like the real-life lawmakers are doing. If an adult leader takes a libelous shot at another city, we can sue them, and we do. In both challenge and jest, one leader openly snarks a city government, and we haul him into court. He almost doesn't show up for his trial date.

"What are you doing?" a counselor asks as we sit around the courtroom, telling mildly dirty jokes.

"We're waiting," the Boys' State judge explains, briefly outlining the case.

"These guys go into a bar..." the counselor chimes in, helping us kill time.

We have issues. We have principles. We have challenges. We have a process. We have this newly-minted government created from nothing but an outline. Now we can make the process work, and under a disturbing shadow. Just days earlier, the Chinese government had swept Tiananmen Square of pro-democracy protests in a massacre that shocked the world and gave us the iconic image of a lone man standing in front of a line of tanks. We are enjoying a blessing of liberty people died for halfway around the world.

As their first order of business, the Boys' State Legislature unanimously passes a resolution supporting the protesters.

NEXT: The fruits of our labor, beautiful girls, and how I cleaned out a room in 5 seconds flat!

No comments: