There was an opportunity for a teaching moment, and Oklahoma American Legion Boys State senior counselor Jonathan Leatherman Clason took it.
Two “cities” were competing against each other in a bucket brigade as part of the Boys State program at NEO A&M College in Miami, Okla. With members of the Miami city fire department looking on, the Boys State delegates were tasked with filling up a large trashcan with buckets of water from a portable tank.
One city came up with a better idea: save the relay and fill up the trashcan directly.
“And they smoked them when they did it,” Clason noted afterwards.
Clason recognized the teamwork and the leadership necessary to come up with a different way to attack the bucket brigade scenario, part of the special schools at Oklahoma Boys State which also included an emergency response simulation and a Marine Corps leadership challenge aimed at pushing the delegates outside their comfort zone while working in teams.
“We have a huge focus in Oklahoma American Legion Boys State about unity and being team-oriented,” Clason said. “… We find that the most difficult leadership to do is peer leadership. How do you become a leader amongst your friends? Everyone’s trying to be an individual. And our society today is kind of like, ‘I’m an individual, treat me like an individual,’ but things need to be led. Families need to be led, organizations need to be led, programs need to be led.
“And we have great school programs that do that. They teach leadership. But government needs to be led as well. So we teach unity and teamwork here.”
Learning the rights, privileges and responsibilities of franchised citizens is a major emphasis for every Boys State program. At Oklahoma Boys State and other programs, the incoming high school seniors are placed into cities and political parties to simulate their respective state’s government.
“We really stress service,” said Oklahoma Boys State Director Clay Ballenger. “You can’t be of good service to your fellow man and to our country and to your community if you aren’t able to work as a team and work with others and so, to me, it’s really just important as a society that we pass those things along to our youth. Some of them don’t get it at home, and so we try to be aware of that at Boys State, try to give them those life lessons like being part of a team, leadership and followership and service. It’s really what it’s all about here at Boys State.”
Ballenger said it’s important that young people learn how to be part of a team.
“That’s so important in today’s society, because when these young people get out in the workforce, in college and beyond, they need to have those skills to be able to work within a team, and to help each other, and not only to lead but to follow, and Boys State is a great opportunity to put them in those situations that many of them never would be,” he said.
As the Boys State program often draws the “best of the best,” learning how to work as part of a team plays a pivotal role in the delegates’ growth at Boys State.
“In most of these kids’ school, they’re going to be their student council president, they’re going to be their high school football captain, they’re going to be in a leadership position,” said Oklahoma Boys State Assistant Director Corey Brooks. “They’re going to be used to having people follow them; maybe they’re the popular kid, they’re charismatic, they’re the standout kids in their high school.
“When they come to Boys State, they’re an equal; everybody has the same résumé, by and large. So just like in real life, you get out of that small pond into the bigger ocean, and you realize that a lot of your life is followership. So we pride ourselves on teamwork, so we emphasize leadership for those who are truly the standout guys, but also learning how to be a follower, which is critically important in every aspect of life, whether it’s the military, whether it’s politics, whether it’s business, and we try to emphasize that as much as we can so these kids have the best possible opportunities to succeed when a year from now they’re basically out on their own, going to college wherever, it’s a huge lesson that we think is important.”
The governor of this year’s program, Colt Crowson, saw that firsthand.
“From the get-go, when we first arrived at Boys State, we were taught that we were a city and we were a family,” Crowson said. “The American Legion has really come together to make this program great.”