Bob Neal

Bullies always target those who appear defenseless. So we shouldn’t be surprised that children today are being victimized again and again.

In this age of “helicopter parents” (hovering over their kids) and “play dates,” you might think children would never be by themselves long enough to be victimized. But they are. Here are a couple of examples. Boy Scouts and state legislatures.

Scoutmasters who victimize Boy Scouts are taking down the entire scouting movement, forcing the sale of property — see the Sun Journal stories about the Pine Tree Council’s plans to sell Camp Gustin in Sabbatus — to raise $300 million to defend child-abuse suits.

Now we learn that while we were tying knots and rubbing sticks together to make fire, some of our adult leaders were assaulting scouts. Supervision at the national and council levels didn’t stop it. By Nov. 15, some 82,663 complaints of sexual abuse had been filed.

Membership has been in free fall this century, to 2.7 million from 6.2 million in 1999.

Scouts was among my most positive experiences. There, I found achievement. I needed an adult-male role model, since my father had killed himself when I was 10, and I found one in Troop 3 in Columbia, Missouri. He was Paul Y. Burns, a professor of forestry at the University of Missouri. When he took a job at LSU, I felt abandoned. Again.

During Scout Week, Troop 3 set up a demonstration of our skills on the lawn of our sponsor, the Presbyterian church. In two-hour shifts, we pitched tents, started fires, cooked suppers, showed how to tie knots, professed loyalty to God and country by reciting Scout oaths. All valuable, even if the only knot-tying I remember is “granny” knots and half-hitches. In 30 years farming, half-hitches served me well.

Since I worked after school, I pulled an after-dark shift for Scout Week. One night was cold, and I wasn’t dressed for it, but I toughed it out. By showing up and doing my duty, I learned the value of keeping commitments. And I learned to dress better. Useful lessons.

Our assistant scoutmaster was a student at Mizzou. We scouts thought it odd that a man of 20 still walked around in khaki shorts with a kerchief around his neck. But he was a good scout. Literally. He knew his stuff. My single mom asked the key questions. “Does he hang around with you guys, or does he stay more with Mr. Burns and the adults?”

I never saw or heard of him doing anything untoward. When he graduated, he went on his way, and we never heard from or of him again. Guess he was just really into scouting.

I’m forever grateful for scouting. But the abuses that ruined many lives may be taking down an organization that, had it been vigilant, could have kept on guiding young people toward adulthood. Even those who never again turned a rope into a knot.

On to the political bully, who uses children to score points. Legislators in 25 states have filed bills to prevent students born with male genitalia from playing on girls’ sports teams. Utah, Montana, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Dakota, Alabama, Arkansas. And Maine.

At its most absurd, this suggests that boys who want to play sports will say they are girls to get onto girls’ teams. A few may do that, but is that a threat? It suggests sexism, too, on the assumption that boys not good enough for male teams will try to join female teams.

To be sure, there are potential issues. How many hours did we high school boys waste giggling about what goes on in the girls’ restroom? Never counted, but it was a lot. What would we have done to get inside that restroom? Never did, but some guys did and reported back that it was just like ours, except for that dispensing machine on the wall and no urinals. Tee hee.

Privacy in restrooms and locker rooms is important. Some boys wouldn’t even suit up for gym in sight of others in the locker room. Some chose lockers that would be out of view. And some never showered after gym, just changed quickly and went back to class.

Sorting out by gender should be easy. If, in one’s heart of hearts, one believes one was born with the wrong genitalia, one can change. After the change, one is of another gender.

Most of us accept our birth genitalia. Toward the 1% (or fewer) who don’t, I hold no grudge. I’m more likely to hold a grudge toward a culture so rigidly segregated by gender “roles” that some born into one gender believe they belong in the other. Or another.

I don’t know if we’ll ever get to a day when no one raises an eyebrow at the idea of a househusband, just as nearly no one raises an eyebrow now at the idea of a female welder or professor. A day when genitalia doesn’t determine one’s whole identity. I hope we do.

Didn’t we read a few years ago of girls in Maine joining boys’ wrestling teams? The experience was so positive that the Maine Principals Association pulled its stick out of the mud long enough to start girls’ wrestling. I wonder if this proposed legislation would have prevented the development of girls wrestling in Maine? Where’s the equity in that?

Bob Neal wonders if some legislators see kids as fair political game because, after all, children don’t vote. That makes them an easy target. Especially for fearful adults. Neal can be reached at [email protected]

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