A Nation of Knowledge

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There are many national treasures in the United States, a number of them gifts from nature. The Grand Canyon is a breathtaking spectacle. The mighty redwood forests are haunting. The Rocky Mountains are the marrow of the country. We sometimes forget our manmade creations that seem to pale in comparison to the ancient edifices and wonders that lie in other parts of the world, but one that stands out as a true gift is the system of Smithsonian museums in Washington D.C. that span so many facets of human enterprise. Surprisingly the beginnings of that incredible institution came from a man who had never even been to the United States.

James Smithson was a wealthy Brit who possessed an intense curiosity about science and the world. From a young age he dabbled in research and his studies and findings enabled him to accumulate a rather tidy sum of money for the time. When he died his will stipulated that his fortune would go to his nephew, but if that nephew died without heirs then it would revert to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”  As fate would have it Smithson’s nephew indeed died without children and so a plan was devised to send the five hundred thousand dollar estate to the U.S.

After a flurry of debate over how best to spend the windfall Congress decided to create “a museum, a library, and a program of research, publication, and collection in the sciences, arts, and history.” In August of 1846, President Polk signed the bill into law and of course the rest is history. Today there are nineteen different museums in the Smithsonian family and countless visitors from around the world enjoy the exhibits and benefit from the research that happens all because of the largesse of one man who never actually explained why he had chosen to donate his wealth to the fledgling country. This generous act has indeed increased and diffused knowledge to countless ordinary people over the ensuing decades and has become one of the most popular destinations in the world.

I suspect that during his time Mr. Smithson saw the United States as a rather wild place with little history of which it might boast. The country was still struggling to define itself and to keep afloat in the early nineteenth century. Much of the world sat back waiting for the whole experiment that had been unleashed by the Founding Fathers to implode. It was easy to see that there were still many problems that needed addressing when Mr. Smithson died in 1829. He must have been considered rather eccentric to even consider leaving his fortune to a nation that had yet to prove itself, but in retrospect it was a brilliant idea. What better way to insure progress than to promote education? It is indeed in opening our minds to the knowledge that has come before us and the ideas of the future that we as people become stronger. The foundation of success lies in learning and uncovering truths. The Smithsonian Institution has dedicated itself to being a repository of information that is open to all people.

We are presently engaged in heated discussions about how to move forward in a world that is very different than the one that James Smithson inhabited, and yet his essential understanding of the importance of knowledge holds the key to unlocking our full potential. If the Smithsonian Museums that grace Washington D. C. have taught us anything it is that the power of mankind is unleashed at its best when we work together as people to provide win/win situations for all parties.

What worries me most about the environment that I observe today is that people are taking sides and demanding that their points of view be accepted without quarter. In other words there is an atmosphere of extreme partisanship that virtually insures that half of the population will be angry one way or another. Little effort is being made to consider alternatives or to engage in healthy research and discussion of issues. Much of the population is ignoring the knowledge that we have accumulated over time that might help in unravelling the challenges that we face. I find that few people even possess a fundamental understanding of our Constitution and why it was created the way it was. Even our presidents are sometimes guilty of believing that they have powers that do not belong to that branch of government. We seem to promote freedom of speech only as long as it aligns with our way of thinking and the entire political spectrum is quite guilty of intellectual laziness.

The Smithsonian Institution and all for which it stands should be more than just a vacation destination for Americans. It is not Disneyland, but rather a treasure trove of information and ideas about which we should be eager to learn and discuss while eschewing our preconceived notions. Ours is supposed to be a nation of “we, the people” not “you people” and yet so often I hear taunts that divide us into camps as though there is no possibility of ever coming together.

Propaganda is bombarding us every minute of every day. It is up to each of us to take the time to unravel fact from fiction, lies from truth. It should not be them against us, but rather all of us searching together for the truths that are evident and that may be found in the unfolding history of mankind much of which is housed in the Smithsonian Institution. Our goals should not be to defeat those who think differently from ourselves but to find ways of managing our beautiful diversity so that everyone feels a sense of belonging and power. Our journey to such ideals should begin with educating ourselves and our children.

As we begin yet another school year we would be wise to be inspired by James Smithson’s generosity and wisdom. Somehow he understood that all nations need to learn from the knowledge that mankind has assembled over time. It is in using our rationality that we better the lives of everyone and those who have come before us have demonstrated time and again that struggles for power are not the answer. All of the lessons are right in front of our eyes. It’s time that we buckle down and take them to heart.

A Knock at the Door

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It was nine thirty on a Saturday night. We were watching a Poirot mystery on television when there was a loud knock at our door. By the time I walked down the hallway to peek outside whoever had been there was gone. I had just settled back into my chair when there was another banging noise. This time I dashed to the entryway more quickly and turned on the porch light. I saw two young boys who appeared to be around fourteen or fifteen years old. One of them sprinted away quickly and the other stood like a deer in the headlights exclaiming his sorrow for bothering us and adding that he was just trying to sell Girl Scout cookies. Of course I understood immediately that we had been pranked. I sensed that the boy who didn’t manage to get away was someone I had seen in the neighborhood. He seemed very familiar and the more I thought about it, the more certain I was that he often plays basketball just down the street with a number of his friends.

There was a time when teenage mischief was almost a right of passage. My own girls wrapped houses with toilet paper and celebrated when our home was decorated with long strands of tissue as well. I did a bit of knocking on doors and making silly phone calls in my time. Such tricks are generally done with no ill intentions and I suspect that the young boys who visited our home were just continuing the tradition of being silly on a Saturday night. Nonetheless I found myself quite troubled after our surprise visitors had left, not so much because they had bothered me, but because I worried about what might happen to them if they continue their nighttime visits to other homes.

The world is not the same as it once was. When I was young we rarely locked the doors to our home until just before going to bed. Even then we slept with our bedroom windows wide open because our home was not air conditioned. The only thing between us and a home invader was a screen which might have easily been removed. In those days it never even occurred to us to worry that someone might attempt to do us harm while we were dreaming. Our world seemed so innocent and safe.

Now we live in times of uncertainty. We hear of criminals breaking into houses on a regular basis. There is fear in people’s minds. Many of them install cameras and alarms to warn them of danger. Others add an arsenal of guns and ammunition to their security program in case they need to defend themselves. Doors are now routinely locked all day long. In some ways we act as though our castles are under siege, and I suppose that it is rather prudent to be safe rather than sorry. The problem is that in such an environment individuals may act before they have all of the facts. Those same outrageous boys who came to my door might find themselves on the wrong side of a gun if they hit a home with a very nervous and excitable person inside. They might literally be injured or even killed all because they thought it was funny to scare people.

Years ago two of my daughter’s friends decided to pull a prank on her. They dressed in dark ninja style clothing and crept up to our back window and peered inside while we were watching a movie. Since I recognized them immediately their joke backfired. I was livid, not because I did not have a sense of humor, but because I knew for a fact that many of my neighbors were armed and would not have hesitated to shoot at strangers wearing dark masks while creeping through the dark of night. I scolded the boys for their stupidity while my heart raced at the thought of what might have happened to them had they been seen by someone who did not realize who they were. I was upset that they had been so unthinking.

I feel the same way about the two boys who were out having fun when they targeted our home. I know from an online neighborhood chat room that there have been several incidents of strangers knocking at night to determine if anyone is at home. So far nobody has been robbed or hurt but the comments that people make regarding what their response will be if anyone threatens their personal space make me realize that those boys are at great risk. Many of my neighbors insist that they will call the police. Others assert that they will shoot first and ask questions later. Such is the reality of today’s world, and such is the danger that the boys might encounter.

On that chat line I asked parents of teenagers to have a talk with their children emphasizing that they should not engage in reckless behaviors. I would be gravely upset if I learned that the young people were hurt or killed, but I would also understand why someone might overreact when they feel threatened. It’s up to teachers and parents to instruct the young on the folly of pranks that involve frightening people. What may have once seemed to be innocent fun is likely to be interpreted as a reason for defense in today’s environment.

Teenagers’ brains are still developing. They often do things that are more risky than they ought to be. I was the quintessential good girl and yet I also engaged in adventures that in retrospect might have resulted in great harm to me and my friends. I once crawled under the fence of a property where trucks were stored near my grandmother’s house. An armed guard roamed the area. I had no business in there but I thought it was exciting to be able to come and go without being caught. My antics were silly but they gave me a rush, made me laugh and felt liberating. It never once occurred to me that I might have been in danger.

It is imperative that we speak frankly to our kids before we let them lose on the world at large. Sometimes we shelter them because we do not want them to be fearful when we might be wiser to discuss the realities of various situations in which they may find themselves. We need to be frank with them about peer pressure and how to extricate themselves from situations that feel uncomfortable or wrong. We should discuss how to behave if they are stopped by the police. Just as most parents practice fire drills and show their kids where to go if a tornado hits, so too must we review the skills they will need when they are not with us.

Time and again experiments show that our children just don’t think when danger is lurking. They go with strangers to look for a lost dog. They follow other kids into strange places. They simply have not internalized the necessary skills for keeping themselves safe because we haven’t instructed them as well as we should.

We certainly don’t want to make our teenagers paranoid. Most of the time they will be just fine. What we must do is provide them with the survival tools they will need in those rare cases when things just don’t seem right to them. If we have practiced such things and given them the reasons why they should be vigilant and resourceful they should be okay.

I can’t help thinking about the two visitors to my home and wondering if they are still engaged in an activity that may one day end in tragedy. I hope that perhaps their parents will be informed by someone who knows them and that they will put a stop to their dangerous behavior. It’s sad that we have reached this point, but it is the new normal. It’s up to us to instruct our youth and then hope that they remember what we have taught them.

Remembering A Wonderful Life

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The classic movie It’s A Wonderful Life considers the difference that one individual might make in the world. The premise is that if the hero had never lived everything in his town would have turned out differently. It demonstrated that while each of us only touch a limited number of lives, our impact is nonetheless profound.

I was thinking about this when the new RAISE immigration plan was announced. I wondered what might have happened if such a law had been in effect when my grandfather first wanted to come to the United States from Austria Hungary. He had only minimal education and no real skills beyond a willingness to do the most detestable of jobs. His English was minimal. He came with little more than the clothes on his back and did the kind of manual labor that is brutal and dirty. He was frugal and saved money until he was able to send for my grandmother. She had even less to offer our great country than he did. She spoke no English and her education was virtually nonexistent. Once she had arrived she worked as a cook, a cleaning lady and at a bakery until she began to have children and then she rarely left her home again. My grandfather eventually settled on a job at a meat packing plant. He cleaned carcasses and equipment, hardly a grand career but certainly a noble way to provide for his family. From his meager salary he built a tiny house for which he paid cash and there he raised eight children.

According to the point system of the RAISE plan Grandpa would hardly have been a candidate for immigration. There was little to indicate that he would be of great economic use to the United States. I am rather certain that he would have been denied entry to our nation. What a loss that would ultimately have been.

All four of my grandfather’s sons served proudly in the military during World War II. During their lifetimes they worked hard at their jobs, rarely missing even one day of work. Two of them were employed by the United States Postal Service and two worked for Houston Lighting and Power. His daughters held a variety of positions that included teaching, doing research for a high blood pressure study, serving the United States Postal Service and working at a Naval Station. Their children, my grandfather’s grandchildren, were even more remarkable. Among them were accountants, teachers, managers, businesspersons, firefighters, and engineers. In fact my brother coauthored the program for the navigational system of the International Space Station. I wonder who would have done that if my grandfather had never come here?

It’s difficult to imagine how different the lives of countless individuals might have been had my grandfather never been granted permission to immigrate to the United States simply because his education was lacking, his skills were so basic and his English was wanting. On the surface he most certainly may have appeared to be a risk, and yet he was a proud American who encouraged his children to always work hard and be their very best. When many citizens were struggling to survive during the Great Depression he kept his family safe in a home that he had build one section at a time, paying for each addition as he went. He was frugal and refused to even accept even charitable gifts, insisting that he wanted to earn whatever he had. He was exactly the kind of American that has made this country great, but with a law like RAISE he might never have stepped on our shores.

With each successive generation his successors have become ever more important contributors to American society. There are medical doctors and those with PhD’s in public health and mathematics. There are teachers, accountants, nurses, electricians, business people, builders, athletes, ministers and scientists. The talent pool that has come from him has widened and the future of his great great grandchildren appears to be even brighter. His was the American dream and it was fulfilled beyond even his own expectations. Certainly it has made a difference to the country in a measurable way, but what if he had never been allowed to come?

My grandfather’s story is not that unusual. It has been repeated many times over in the history of our nation. Individuals who came with little or nothing to recommend them went on to build families whose impact was monumental. If we were to take away all of their contributions how different would our land be? How can we ever know who among us will be the teacher that we need, the inventor who will make our lives better, the leader who will find solutions to our biggest problems? Each of us traces our ancestry back to some distant place and in most cases the person who first ventured here was desperate to find a better way of life, but did not appear to be outstanding on the face of things. How can we use a point system to determine which people will ultimately have the best impact on our land?

I have taught thousands of immigrant children. Many of their parents spoke no English, but they were good people who did their share of work, often the dirtiest and least desirable. Like my grandfather they wanted a better life for their children and sacrificed greatly to make it happen, many times by working multiple jobs. Among my students from such families are college professors, medical doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, police officers, soldiers, fire fighters, mechanics, builders, accountants, biologists, chemists, mathematicians, physicists, psychologists, public health administrators, computer programmers, public administrators, school principals, counselors, lawyers and even politicians. In a single generation they have fulfilled the hopes of their parents and are actively contributing to society in thousands of ways. They are the true face of immigration, not the hopeless gang members and welfare takers that fear mongers sometimes portray them to be. 

I respectfully submit that we should carefully consider what we might be missing if we restrict immigration to our country as outlined in the RAISE bill. Skimming what appears to be the cream of the crop from various foreign nations may or may not be the answer to a better economy. Sometimes the desire that comes from someone desperate to improve his/her condition cannot be measured by a rubric, just as the worth of my grandfather might have been considered rather low. What made him a good candidate for consideration was the “ganas” burning inside his belly. All he needed was an opportunity to demonstrate just how valuable he truly was. Thankfully he was given that gift and what a difference it has made to the United States.

We certainly want the best for our nation but we need to consider the consequences of limiting ourselves to rubrics that fail to recognize the intangible values that make truly good citizens like my grandfather and his descendants. The issue is far too complex to delineate with numbers. Human beings will surprise us again and again. We need to be open to thinking outside of the box, because it is beyond the confines of our imaginations that the best things happen. Let’s keep our lives wonderful and welcome the tired and the beleaguered. From them may come just the people that we have been waiting for.

Summers and Huckleberry Finn

1622398_origI have to admit that I have never much liked August for the same reason that I used to have an aversion to Sunday evenings. August meant that it was nearing the time when I would have to return to school, something I did both as a child and later as an adult. August seemed to be the dog days of the entire year, a month in which the heat had built to a climax and the fun and relaxation that I had enjoyed in the summer was in its waning days. When August came around I was generally filled with a sense of dread knowing that my vagabond adventures would soon be replaced by early rising each morning and working on school related projects until late in the evening. I seriously didn’t want to even think about all of the labors and restrictions on my time that lay ahead.

Don’t get me wrong. I was a devoted student as a child and once I became a working adult I threw myself wholeheartedly and enthusiastically into the teaching profession. I enjoyed being in school, but I had a love/hate relationship with the entire experience. On the one hand I felt a rush of excitement about the new challenges that I would most certainly encounter in each new year, but on the other hand I fully understood how much intensity I would surely throw into my labors. Thus each time August rolled around I longed to extend my freedom and relaxation just a bit longer.

When I was a child I had the luxury of enjoying all thirty one of the final days of my annual holiday. Not even once did we return to the classroom before Labor Day. The trend of beginning  the school year before the eighth month of the year had ended did not come about until I had been working for a time as a teacher, and so our family often planned a big vacation to cooler climes to take a break from the heat. Some of our best vacations to places like Montana and Wyoming happened during the first couple of weeks in August. I didn’t even think about school until the middle of the month, and even then the transition from vagabond days to almost total preoccupation with work were usually gradual enough to help me grow accustomed to a return to my labors.

All of that began to change over time. The old school year ended later and later and the new one began earlier and earlier. Expectations regarding professional development became more demanding, so much so that I often spent most of June attending classes designed to improve my teaching. By the first week in August I was already planning lessons and visiting the school to prepare my classroom. My summers became more and more constricted as did those of my daughters who had to attend practices and complete summer assignments.

When August rolled around we were no longer able to make family plans because everyone in the household was quite busy gearing up for the coming months. I adapted to the changes albeit a bit grudgingly. I knew that many of my friends had little sympathy for me because they worked all year long with only one or two weeks of vacation. It was difficult for them to understand just how much I needed the down time of a full three months when such an extended break was an unheard of luxury for them. What I knew is that very few of them would be grading papers and creating lessons at eleven in the evening and all weekend long just to stay afloat of the demands of their jobs. The extra work that I did at home every day of the school year was easily equivalent to the eight to ten hour days that they spent at their jobs all summer long. In other words our labors were equivalent, even though they were not performed in the same time frame.

Now I’m watching the demands of the school year begin as soon as August rolls around. A grandson who is in his middle school orchestra has already been practicing for several weeks for a performance that his group will give to returning teachers. Another grandson is working with his band from seven in the morning until five at night. Teacher friends are attending conferences and training sessions that will dovetail with requirements to be on duty beginning early in August. Many schools will open their doors to their students by the middle of the month, making the summer seem shorter and shorter. Soon the buses that stop at my corner will be rolling again and everyone will be in full swing.

Part of me feels quite sad about the abbreviated summer vacation for students and teachers even though it really doesn’t affect me anymore. In retrospect I think that as a youngster I learned as much during my time off as I did during the school year, maybe even more. By the age of fifteen I had a job as a receptionist for our family doctor from June through August. I learned how to work with the public and deal with emergencies. I became an expert at keeping books and running a small office. I developed people skills and found talents that I had no idea even existed. I also learned how to spend and save the money that I earned in a wise and reasonable manner. I would have been unable to go on my senior trip or purchase a class ring without the income that I generated during the three months that were mine to use in exploring the world.

Those three months also allowed me to read purely for pleasure. It was in my self selected forays into literature and nonfiction that I have the most wonderful memories and grew most fond of reading. I had time to learn how to dance and twirl a baton, how to paint and mold clay into sculptures. I enjoyed being creative with the other kids in the neighborhood and spent hours writing and performing in backyard plays or creating a neighborhood newspaper. I had bridge tournaments with friends and made my first attempts at cooking. I had time to do exciting things that I was too busy to tackle during the school year when my teachers filled my calendar with assignments of their choosing. Summers were glorious moments spent on my grandparents’ farm soaking in their folk wisdom. It was an opportunity for education of a different sort than the kind that is ruled by curriculum guidelines or a scope and sequence of learning. Summer was the frosting on the cake of my learning.

I suppose that today’s kids have little idea of what they are missing. They go with the flow and follow the new rules because it has always been that way for them. Everything in their lives is far more organized than my experiences were. I don’t see many children playing outside even on the hottest days. Summer jobs like the ones I had are hard to find. It’s a different world and I suppose that everyone takes the new ways for granted just like I did those glorious three months of freedom. Perhaps it is best to prepare students for the realities of a world that is far different from the one that existed when I was growing into an adult. With air conditioning there is little difference between August and November, so schools may as well be open for business. Still I find myself wondering which way really is the most effective. Somehow I think that I would not be nearly as interesting if I had not had those precious three months each year in which to develop myself just as I wished. Those were my Huckleberry Finn moments and I am all the richer for enjoying them.

  

A Not So Honorable Guest

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I’ve been quite good about leaving politics out of my blogs of late. After all who really cares what I think about such things? Most people enjoy their freedom to have their voices heard in the ballot box, but not so much in public discourse. Our thoughts about government tend to be a private thing. Just as with religion most of us don’t care to mix our work and play with our deepest political thoughts. I do believe, however, that from time to time we are remiss if we do not speak out when we sense that a wrong has taken place. After all, the silence of otherwise good people allowed the concentration camps to flourish under Adolf Hitler’s rule. Certainly those who knew what was happening feared for their own lives and thus kept quiet, but what if large numbers of people had spoken out en masse? Would the horrific murders have continued? How many individuals working together are needed to stop injustice? Didn’t the civil rights movement of the sixties teach us that there is power in united voices? When does the time come to ignore the consequences and stand up and be counted?

I’ve not been shy about admitting that I am not a fan of President Donald Trump. Nonetheless I have been very respectful of those who earnestly believe that he will bring some good to our country. I have also noted that I generally think that it is best to support our leaders. Thus I have been silent for the most part even as I worried about the state of the union with such an amateurish individual as its chief executive. I mostly ignore the tweets and rants and firings and faux pas from our POTUS, but he recently did something that really bothers me.

It’s no secret that I have dedicated the greater part of my life to working with young people. Our future depends on helping them to develop principled lives. It is our duty as adults to model the traits that will help them to be successful as humans. We must help them to understand the value of honesty, loyalty, hard work, compassion, and such. I have learned that the only way they will listen is by observing our character in action. For that reason I have always counseled other adult leaders to walk the walk of their talk. It is imperative that we demonstrate the values that we want our children to have.

I have four grandsons who have learned some incredible lessons through their participation in the Boy Scouts of America. Two from them earned the rank of Eagle Scout and the other two are in the process of reaching that distinction. They follow the example of their father who is as upstanding as anyone that I have ever known. He has taught his sons to be young men of the highest integrity, mostly because they have seen him in action day after day. Membership in the Boy Scouts has enhanced the foundation upon which their character has been built, and has provided them with opportunities to be leaders. Our family has been very pleased and proud of the wonderful experiences that scouting has given them.

Thus it was with profound displeasure that I learned of President Trump’s speech at the annual Boy Scout Jamboree. It is traditional for the President of the United States to address the gathering or send a representative to do so. It has historically been understood that this speech is supposed to inspire the scouts to become their best selves. It is not meant to be a political opportunity. In the past those who have spoken have understood this quite well and made the occasion an enjoyable one for the young people. Enter Donald Trump who chose to bring his own personal politics and travails front and center. While he eventually settled into a more traditional celebration of the goals of scouting, he found it necessary to make digs about his predecessor, Barack Obama, his opponent, Hillary Clinton, and the press. To the dismay of many his remarks even encouraged some of the boys to boo and cheer.

His speech should be an embarrassment for both him and the Boy Scouts. His politics besmirched the unity and purpose of the occasion and caused many to question the role of scouting, which is a genuine travesty given that so many who participate hold political views that are diametrically opposed to his. It was a very uncomfortable moment that should never have happened. If the young men learned anything it was that one need not hold fast to time honored principles to get ahead in this world, and that is a tragedy. President’s Trump total disregard for the spirit of the Jamboree is unforgivable.

I’ve held my tongue until it is black and blue from the tooth marks that I have left on it. When will this man begin to show respect for the people of this country and quit worrying so much about himself? His immaturity and petulance is embarrassing and only appears to grow worse each day. If he really desires to make America great again, the first change that he needs to make is within himself. Sadly it’s unlikely that a seventy something year old man is capable of a character makeover. I can’t help but wonder what kind of horrible message he is sending to the young people of our country, and I find myself thinking that if he can’t control himself then perhaps it is up to the rest of the adults in the room to remind the kids that we shouldn’t act the way he does. In imparting that advice I intend to include myself, which is why I feel the necessity of stating loudly and clearly that he was and has been very wrong in his behavior over and over again.

It is one thing to be brave and strong in the face of injustice. We need our fighters for they are the ones who have set us aright throughout history. It is another to just be a loudmouthed and selfish braggart, which is the impression that President Trump is leaving wherever he goes. It is not good for our nation and it is heartbreaking to me that there appears to be little hope that he will rise to the requirements of the job and begin to show a semblance of dignity.

I hope that the Boy Scouts of America will not suffer too much backlash from the fiasco that recently transpired. In spite of fits and starts here and there it is still an amazing organization. It’s too bad that someone who had the power to inspire instead chose to inject so much whining and negativity into what should have been a grand moment. I hope that the leaders and the parents take the time to let the boys who were present know that scouting is not about backbiting, complaining or boasting. There are lessons that might be learned even from such a negative event. If on the other hand nothing is said the lasting impression may result in unintended consequences that will not be good either for the boys or for the organization. I sincerely pray that this is handled properly.

All of us have had childhood experiences with adults who should have been better than they were. We took note of their bad behaviors and in many cases did our best not to repeat them. This is my wish for the scouts. They have just witnessed how a true leader does not act when he/she is an honored guest at a special occasion.