Charlottesville High School during my junior year was cracking down on kids hanging out in their cars during lunch, drug use, and water balloons. I wasn’t a drug or water balloon user myself and I didn’t own a car, but cracking down always rubbed me the wrong way, so I circulated a petition.
I was inspired by a book, Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary Philosopher, edited by John S Pancake. It was a collection of Jefferson’s speeches, letters and essays grouped by subject. I bought it when I moved to Charlottesville at the age of 14. Jefferson was from Charlottesville so I thought it would help me fit in. There was a chapter on Politics, Religion, Slavery, Agriculture… I loved that book. I’m not a person who cares about biographies or workshops famous people, but I love language, and I loved the way Jefferson wrote. And I’d never read anything like it before. The institutions of mankind are to serve mankind. The dead have no rights. The tree of liberty must occasionally be watered with the blood of tyrants. And I tried to capture that tone in my petition on water balloons.
After I turned in the petition I was called to the Vice Principal’s office. Mr Frazier was sitting at his desk with the petition in front of him. He complimented me on my prose style and asked if I was having any problems at home.
Soon after I was called to the Guidance Department and Mrs Derdain told me that I had been picked by the school administration to attend something called Boys State of Virginia. She said Boys State of Virginia was a prestigious week-long summer program run by the American Legion where kids learn about democracy. “We think this will be a better outlet for your interest in politics.”
The thing is, I had no interest in politics. I knew about the State of Nature and the Social Contract but I had no idea who the governor of Virginia was. I’d never campaigned for anyone. I’d never been involved in student government. The only position I’d accept in student clubs was vice president, and that was because vice presidents don’t have to do anything. But that summer I was off to Boys State of Virginia to learn about democracy from the American Legion.
At Boys State of Virginia, learning about democracy began with ID cards. Mine said Joel Jones. Eisenhower City. Nationalist. Each 20-kid dorm was called a city and named after a U.S. president. Nationalist was one of two randomly assigned political parties. At Boys State we all wear matching white shirts and blues shorts. Led by our dorm leader who is a marine sergeant we learn to march in formation to meals at the dining hall, and three daily assemblies at a huge gymnasium where Legionnaires introduced Guest Politicians who give speeches. Meanwhile kids ran for office. It’s an entire imaginary state campaign season crammed into one week. Kids run for mayor of their cities and precinct captains and the Boy’s State of Virginia legislature, and the big three offices of Governor, Lt Governor, and Attorney General. The final voting is Saturday afternoon. Sunday the new pretend regime is sworn in and our mom’s come to pick us up.
I signed up to run for Lt Governor as Joel “Bones” Jones. Lt Governor because I figure Lt Governor is the closest thing to being a vice president, and “Bones” because a nickname will show I’m a man of the people. On Wednesday we have our party nominating conventions. Between each vote cities are wheeling and dealing, promising to back your governor if you back their attorney general. I’m good at the wheeling and dealing and after more than a dozen ballots I Joel Bones Jones am the Nationalist Candidate for Lt Governor.
Now the other major candidates start campaigning hard, but I don’t bother because I have a secret weapon. Thomas Jefferson. See, at Saturday Assembly before the final vote the candidates for the big 3 give speeches up on the podium just like the Guest Politicians, and I’ll pull out the Jefferson. The institutions of mankind are to serve mankind! The dead have no rights! The tree of liberty must occasionally be watered with the blood of tyrants! Everyone will go nuts
Because people are already nuts. During the first couple of days when the Guest Politicians gave speeches we clapped politely, but by midweek the Guest Politicians say anything. The United States of America! Our Young People! Our Fighting Men and Women! And hundreds of boys in white shirts and blue shorts are on their feet clapping and yelling. Me along with everyone else.
But now it’s Thursday and I’m not like everyone else. I’m Joel Bones Jones. Nationalist Candidate for Lt Governor. I have responsibilities. I have to give a speech that sounds like Thomas Jefferson, which means I need some issues, cause I realize all his stuff is organized around issues, so I’m listening to the guest politicians for issues and there are none. And the rest of Boys State is pretty much the same.
The two political parties are identical, every city is interchangeable with every other city. We have no budget, no bureaucracy, no taxes, no highways, no schools. Our cities have no zoning battles, no crime. No women.
I’ve got to put this out of my mind and come up with a speech but I can’t. Friday night the other Eisenhowerians are out at Boys State mandated pizza parties during their two-hour block of free time and I’m pacing the room. How can I ask people to vote for me if I don’t have any policies, and even if I had policies I couldn’t implement them, and even if I could implement them I’d never know if they worked? I’ll go to sleep. Tomorrow morning I’ll wake up with an idea. But I can’t sleep. I toss and turn and when I wake up Saturday morning I still have nothing. Then it’s all a blur. Breakfast. Marching in formation to Assembly.
Could the candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general please come up to the podium!
Next thing I know I’m sitting in a semi-circle of folding chairs listening to the candidates for attorney general. The United States of America! Our Young People! Our Fighting Men and Women! And with every phrase what looks from up here like thousands of identical white-shirted teenagers scream and yell and applaud. Meanwhile I’ve got a sweaty, crumpled piece of blank paper and a ball-point pen still trying to come up with something to say.
Then I hear it: Nationalist Candidate for Lt Governor of Boys State, Joel Bones Jones!
The gymnasium erupts in applause. I stumble to the podium. The clapping and whooping and cheers go on and on as I’m spreading out the piece of paper as if there’s a speech on it. Finally the sea of white shirts sinks into folding chairs and settles into silence. A moment goes by and I can’t say anything. I’ve got nothing. Absolutely nothing. And then I hear my own voice:
“None of this really means anything!”
Silence. Nobody applauds. No on. Not even some weirdo in back. I don’t know why I said it. I didn’t mean to. It just came out. I try to explain, I try to tell them I don’t look down on anyone and it’s good to be enthusiastic maybe but we can’t do anything really but we can still believe in stuff and that’s probably good. But I don’t believe what I’m saying and it’s an incoherent jumble. I babble for a minute or so more and then just say thank you, and I go back to my chair and sit down. Still no one applauds. Not even politely.
Then a red-faced legionnaire rushes across the stage to grab the microphone.
We’re not taking sides here but if anyone tells you that what we’re doing today doesn’t mean anything, they’re wrong!
And Boys State of Virginia erupts in deafening applause. Hundreds and hundreds of kids on their feet screaming in approval, hands in the air as if touchdowns were scored, fists pumping, whistling as if watching strippers. It goes on and on and on.
When all the speeches are done, I walk back to the area where my city is seated. No one looks at me. No one says anything. And for the rest of my time at Boys State, it’s the same. No one beats me up, short-sheets my bed, threatens me. No one laughs at me. No one even asks my why I said what I’d said. For the rest of the time I’m a ghost. Completely ignored.
And it wasn’t so bad being ignored. Looking back, that’s one thing the American Legion did teach me.