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The Best Time I had as a Boy

The Best Time I had as a Boy

By Leah Falk

Here are the twin wishes of every preadolescent: to be an expert in something and to survive, or even live well, without adult oversight. It’s best if one’s expertise is in something no one grown-up or peer can possibly best you in: the habits of pirates, or what it’s like to live in an orphanage, or the number and character of Elizabeth Taylor’s marriages. Pippi Longstocking knows how to wash the floors with her feet and tell whether a coin is gold. Harriet the Spy knows the catalogue of meats and vegetables Little Joe has stolen from his family’s delivery truck, how to sneak into a rich woman's dumbwaiter. Peter knows how to fly. Your specialty must be something that perpetuates your own freedom, staves off the stasis of adulthood.

*

“The best time I had as a boy was when I went about as a sea scout with my four brothers mucking about on the sea round the coasts of England,” writes Lord Baden Powell in his introduction to Scouting for Boys. “We had a sailing boat of our own on which we lived and cruised about, at all seasons and in all weathers, and we had a jolly good time – taking the rough with the smooth.” In the introduction to How Girls Can Help Build Up the Empire, the handbook for Girl Guides written with his sister Agnes, he writes, “It has been said that forty percent of women act on impulse rather than on reflection, and impulse does not always carry you in the right direction.”

*

I am in the second grade and I write my name in every book I own, even the paperbacks. Not always the name I was given: I inhabit Kerry for a time, Robin, then Alexandra, my middle name. I imagine these girls to be the version of me someone would write about in the third person. They are not Jewish and have great, expressive nut-brown eyebrows. They walk home alone after school and let themselves in. Their knees are always dirty – they “muck about,” for sure-- and they are worldly and tough and they have a lot to teach Rebekah, my sheltered friend who prefers to eat melon in frozen ball form. I write their names on my school papers, too. Kids in my class ask the teacher, Ms. Gardner, whose test this is, with Samantha or Alex on the top. The next year, my third grade teacher will crack down on this practice, implying that third grade is the threshold between fucking around and seriousness. But Ms. Gardner doesn’t seem to have the energy; from across the room, she sighs and points at me.

*

In the books I loved best as a girl, adults are sketches or caricatures while children – girls, mostly -- are full and complicated. No one knows more, no one can take better care of herself, than the girls at the centers of these books. Matilda, Harriet, Constance Greene’s Al, Anne, Pippi, Mildred the Worst Witch. My favorite girl characters drove “man comes to town” plots – just by opening her mouth or writing in a notebook, each one upends the routines of a small village, or a New York apartment building, or a school classroom. Re-reading these books, I realize that the age at which their creators have captured these characters is a precious time, at an age when girls have real power to create or destroy without being pathologized or sidelined. Jennifer Lawrence in The Silver Linings Playbook and Natalie Portman in Garden State were likely Worst Witches, Nonconformists, and Spies, but their adult selves are presented as troubled, passionate women who can’t quite function in normal society, sometimes known by the unflattering shorthand “manic pixie dream girl,” for their ability to bewitch maudlin, wound-licking men. The other path is to mellow: even the fiery Anne Shirley, in L.M. Montgomery's own hands, grows up to become a sensible, sighing mother, her impulses given way to reflections, flame-red hair muted to auburn. Each girl's magic will metastasize to eccentricity or wilt to mere charm, these stories warn; she will be forced to skip over the stage where she is alone on a mountaintop, listening to the sound of her own echo. Her adult power to disrupt the ordinary may be limited to the lives of one or two men.

*

When my grandparents left their New York apartment, my father went through their things and brought home the Boy Scout Encyclopedia he'd had as a child. I was twelve or thirteen, still nursing a desire to transform into a muddy, boyish sprite who MacGyvered the week’s recycling into a functional boat. The encyclopedia, published in 1952, became a gallery of what I felt I had missed by being born a girl and somewhere outside an America depicted, as in the encyclopedia, in saturated watercolors. The Scout makes good [food bags] from old salt and sugar bags or other handy cloth. …A Scout can make fire without matches, without a burning glass, even without flint and steel. What it must have been like to be one of the boys in those pictures: caught like a fly in the middle of the century. How quickly and automatically the limbs would have moved, tying a tourniquet. What long afternoons spent spooling further and further away from one’s parents, stitching a pattern all one’s own. What red cheeks, what muscle tone, what a central, national feeling.

For the next year or so, the book moved in and out of rotation in my reading before bed. For a few weeks, before I went to sleep I rehearsed several types of knots on my bedposts: sheep shank, clove hitch. I dreamed of going back in time and cutting off my hair, or just losing my breasts: I stood before the mirror and held back the parts of me that threatened to obscure a freedom, an independence I felt I'd never had. But by then I was nearly fourteen and it seemed too late to be that kind of a boy.

*

Juliet Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scout movement, met Lord Baden Powell at a party in 1911. He had just published Scouting for Boys. She was a well-born Savannah woman whose charity work among lepers strained at the bounds of acceptability for a married woman of her class. At the time of their meeting, Baden Powell was already a celebrity, and the Boy Scouting movement had taken hold in England and America. Whether the value of Scouting could be extended to girls was up for debate: “While Baden Powell believed girls would benefit from some aspects of the Scouting program, some Britons thought otherwise; critics feared that scouting would transform well-behaved young ladies into raucous tomboys.” But Low did not hesitate to import the movement for young women, and started a Girl Guides chapter in the U.S.

The stories that today’s Girl Scouts inherit about Low are plainly feminist and rebellious: one I remember involves Low and a cousin wanting to play basketball and removing their cumbersome Victorian skirts to play in their bloomers. But the real Low was caught between her desire for girls to have “real fun” while learning the skills of scouting, and the trappings of high society. Her politics are a clue to how difficult it was for a woman of her class to embrace the kind of skilled independence she championed for girls: she did not become a suffragette, nor did she get swept up in the Progressive movement that so embraced scouting for boys in American cities.

Meanwhile, the early Girl Guide handbook, written by Baden Powell and his sister, Agnes, seemed to reflect the world’s, or at least Britain’s, ambivalence about a movement that granted independence to girls through a mixture of technical skill and play – instead, the book framed girls’ contributions to their families and nations as so much invisible domestic labor. In one fable from the handbook, a little girl, Betty, goes into the woods to search for a Brownie, a kind of elf her aunt has told her helps out around the house. After looking in a pool and reciting a rhyme an owl has told her will reveal the creature, she finds only her own reflection. Though she protests that she is not a Brownie, the owl handily imparts to her the moral of her disappointment: “No, but you can be one if you try. You are a strong and active little girl. You could sweep the floor, you are clever enough to lay a fire and light it; you could fill the kettle and put it on to boil; you could tidy up the room and lay the breakfast things; you could make your bed and clean your boots and fold up your clothes. You could do all these things before any one else was up, so that when father and mother came down they would think that the fairies had been at work in the house.”

*

When I thumbed through my father's book, scouting seemed to be the real-life manifestation of those combined childhood fantasies, expertise and solitary survival. In entry after entry, the encyclopedia suggested that the know-it-all quality that in girls manifested as strangeness, that threatened to give way to spinsterhood or manic-pixie-ness, was the very quality that conferred pleasure and independence upon a boy. If you only knew enough, the encyclopedia suggested, how to bake butter beans in a hole in the ground and tie a tourniquet and make use of an axe, your parents and society had no hold on you. You could wander into the woods one day and live. You could sleep on a sailboat. You could come back no sooner than when you pleased.

*

Re-reading Anne or Pippi, Harriet or Al now, I think: let me live with her while she can still live deliberately, for herself. In this state, she knows things or wants to find them out. She eschews certain comforts, like undershirts and shoes. Crucially, she has capital: Harriet has information, Pippi has gold, Anne has “her worldly goods." These things keep her from entering a new world empty-handed; they are her props, her magic kit. The Scout, too, has his tools: ax and awl and rope and handkerchief. For Scouts, these materials facilitate independence just outside of civilization, where he must reinvent the measures of safety and convenience that keep him and his companions alive.

The girls in my books had their tools and their expertise, but, like Juliette Low, they never really left society: their Scouting was done inside houses, in classrooms and laundry rooms. When boundaries are placed on one's movement, one tries to travel by altering the place one is bound to. Anne Shirley changes the names of all the landmarks in Avonlea to reflect her more magical view of the world: "The Lake of Shining Waters," "Dryad's Bubble," "The White Way of Delight." The first time Anne introduces herself, in fact, she is trying to live beyond herself: "Please call me Cordelia," she says to the practical Marilla.

*

As a younger child, I feigned the ease with which my favorite characters understood and controlled their environments: I commandeered vast villages of Playmobil people, invented a theory that pirates had once inhabited my schoolyard, wrote story after story in which a sophisticated character, whose knowledge of the world came from some untold source, educated a child whom I pretended was my friend Rebekah, but who was really like myself: protected. I coveted boldness because it seemed to signify testing natural laws for oneself, but also because, in so many books, it involved setting someone else free from the domesticated realm. Pippi gets Annika and Tommy in endless trouble, and they love her for it. Diana is humiliated when Anne accidentally gets her drunk (what a scandal), but nothing can drive them from each other except their marriages, their growing up. The domesticated children in these books are both the sensible products of adult instruction and ripe for being disabused of it. My desire to adopt the behaviors of my beloved fictional heroines – to mop the floor with my socks and climb up on the roof, to squeeze myself between the posts of the churchyard fence behind our house and carry flashlights and a pocket knife on my belt – strained directly against the boundaries of my protected childhood. Other children I knew carried keys to their parents’ houses, broke their arms, wandered through the parking lots and between the fences of Pittsburgh’s East End on the way home from school. Even now, when I see a child alone on the subway, or walking to the corner store on a routine errand, I'm filled with envy: what she might see alone that she never could with a parent, I think. How that might shape her.

I didn’t just wish for freedom: I wanted to mark myself the way my favorite characters were marked: that is, to forever change the lives of those around me. My uncoolness was an ordinary, girlish uncoolness: I cried easily and cringed when a basketball flew toward me in gym. I wore my mother’s tee shirts and big multicolored glasses, kept endless diaries. None of this added up, in short, to the kind of confidence and independence Huck Finn possesses, or the resilience of Pippi. Most of what mattered to me was what I read, and I would not have wanted to read who I was. I look back at my cloud of alternate names and think of Anne Shirley, or Cordelia, as she preferred -- who also wanted, above all, to enjoy the experience of reading her own life.

*

In the pages of the Encyclopedia, boyhood became the location of my early nostalgia, my fantasy. But whose boyhood, exactly, did I envy?  Many real Scouts I knew later, including my husband, told me their memories of bawdy chanting, pyromania, and borderline hazing of younger Scouts, putting cracks in the curated shine of the Encyclopedia. Then there was Baden-Powell’s breezy account – sailing the seas, “catching rabbits and cooking them, observing birds and tracking animals” – which in his telling seemed to naturally give way to the army, where he “had endless fun big game hunting in the jungles of Africa and India.” All children, except for one, grow up. A girl’s love of wildness, it seemed, gave way to hysteria, to childlessness, to abandonment; a boy’s to patriotism and war. One had no recourse for her boyhood, except perhaps to stuff it awkwardly into womanhood; the other's boyhood was celebrated and nurtured by the state. This seemed to go against the deep knowledge gained in real childhood freedom – the point of which seemed to me to be the ability to spend time alone for as long as possible.

*

When he read the Encyclopedia, if he did, where did my father see himself? His Bronx childhood wasn’t written in its pages, or in Scouting for Boys: he attended troop meetings in a neighborhood full of the children of Irish and Jewish immigrants. His efforts to shrug off adult oversight were more likely to consist of sitting all night at cards and sneaking a beer, which he did, in fact, with other Explorer Scouts. When they wanted to experience nature, they went to New Jersey. The spring I was thirty, I walked one of those paths myself, wriggling between the the Hudson and the parkway, the trail thick with late-winter mud, blue trail blazes visible at the end of long sight-lines. From the lookout points, I could feel the city, maybe the whole country, wanting independence to mean everything. In this direction, where we climbed over a short rock wall to use a gas station bathroom, lay independence gained through infrastructure, the painstaking application of knowledge and skill. In this: the river churning below, a teenager’s bad poem sprayed on a rock: only through rebellion.

*

The Encyclopedia, for all its emphasis on patriotism, is curiously silent on the subject of civil disobedience. Does it imply that the two are opposed? “The trouble,” writes David MacLeod of the rise of Scouting in the Progressive Era, in which the specter of the “wicked city” loomed large for educators and reformers, “was that character builders demanded both strength and control: boys must be manly yet dependent, virtuous without femininity in a culture which regarded women as more moral than men.” American Scouting, folding in the philosophies of educators who wanted to assimilate immigrants and keep children out of pool halls, found itself pinned between a celebration of America as a symbol of rugged independence, of surviving alone with a few tools, and America as a signal to fall in line, to assume the habit of order. In the Encyclopedia the entry on First Aid tells a story of a Boy Scout who drops everything to rush to the side of a man who seems to have had a heart attack. Imagine: tanned limbs jumping to attention, the firm but gentle pressing of the patient’s chest. A child so well trained it is only a matter of command to release his knowledge and skill.

*

In one of these Americas, you get pioneers and cowboys, writers and radicals. In the other, you get good soldiers, obedient reformers who expect change not for their own lives, but perhaps for the lives of their children. The Encyclopedia, with its cheerful boldface definitions and unwavering line drawings, never quite takes a stand as to which type of Scout it means to educate, but it isn't difficult to guess. I feel sympathy for my father's stiff block letters in the front end-papers, the hand sloping downward to the right, full stops thick and unwavering: the writing of a boy who had been taught to please. A few years after he put his name in that book, he would discover amateur radio – a hobby that also seemed to let the operator travel the world without leaving home.

*

In this light, it occurs to me that the fictional characters I hold closest are not, after all, good Scouts. Their stories were riveting because they were, unlike me, often left alone: even if they couldn't go to the woods or spend an entire summer on a sailing boat, they could play out revolutions in their own schoolyards. But despite their specialized knowledge and the goods they carry with them, they are not prepared; they have no guidebooks for how to survive as girls, no one else's careful training. A few years later, long after the last chapter, they're young women: one night, they might set out on a journey. They don't make sure they have everything ready, mostly because they have to go, now. Along the way, they gather what they need. 

 

Leah Falk was raised in Pittsburgh and lives in Philadelphia. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Blackbird, FIELD, The Awl, and elsewhere. She runs programming for the Writers House at Rutgers University-Camden. 

 

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