I KNOW FROM EXPERIENCE that when a teenager’s sheltered world collides with reality, reality wins in a walk. I was thinking of this basic truth this August as I talked with three 17-year-old honor students from Austin’s McCallum High School. The worlds of Dashiell Oatman-Stanford, Sam Bass, and John Minnich had crashed two months earlier, and they were still dealing with the trauma.
They were among the approximately nine hundred Texas high-school-seniors-to-be selected to attend the American Legion’s prestigious Boys State program, which has been held in Austin each June since 1940. The event brings together the brightest, most talented young men in the state and throws them into an unrelenting seven-day sausage grinder of politics and participatory democracy. It’s a brave attempt to teach how government really works: “Learn by doing” is the Boys State motto. The boys run the entire show—electing officers, creating party platforms, debating legislation, and generally behaving like teenagers everywhere—while the adult members of the Legion stand aside like props in a loony bin.
Those who make it through remember it as an arduous but instructive adventure. Some go on to become our state’s leaders: Several members of the current Legislature are Boys State alumni. But the McCallum boys had a different experience. As they describe it, they discovered “an atmosphere of hatred and intolerance” and decided to withdraw after only three days. For them, it was a trip to hell.
Selected last winter by their junior class counselor, the McCallum three were less than enthusiastic about the Boys State opportunity. Former McCallum students who had attended the program had told them that it reflects the conservative values of the American Legion; it’s militaristic, superpatriotic, and heavily tilted to God and country, sometimes at the cost of good government. But the boys believed that a stint at Boys State would offer them valuable insights into politics and might help them gain admission to a top college. Dashiell’s mother, Tamra Oatman, offered encouragement when he casually told her that he had been selected for Boys State. “I grew up in a small town,” said Tamra, a onetime sweetheart of Sweetwater High’s Future Farmers of America, “and it was a very big deal.”
The McCallum three struck me as the kinds of leaders this state needs but seldom gets. They are wholesome, intelligent, well mannered, and likable, the sons of educated, moderate-to-liberal middle-class parents who dote on them and encourage them to overachieve. Sam, who plays baseball at McCallum, was the most physically imposing at six feet four. Dashiell is a member of the band, and John is active in drama. All are members of the National Honor Society. “They are exceptionally bright,” I was told by Jim Furgeson, a popular history teacher at McCallum and the winner of H-E-B’s $25,000 award for lifetime achievement in education in 2004. “They think of the world in terms of ideas rather than facts.”
But as the boys reported to the Jester Center on the campus of the University of Texas on the first Saturday in June, they began to get a sinking feeling. Behind the registration desk sat (in the unforgettable phrase used by one of the boys) “an endless line of old veterans.” The men assigned the boys to one of two political parties, the Nationalist or the Federalist, and to one of 22 cities, divided among eight counties and four districts. The Legion places friends in separate parties and cities, so each boy was immediately on his own. “The boys in my city,” Sam complained, “were overwhelmingly rural and from private religious schools. There were a few minorities, but in no way did they represent the racial makeup of Texas.”
John and Dashiell were caught short that first night when city officers were elected; neither decided to throw his hat in the ring. Sam, however, was elected as a delegate to the state convention. “Chaplain and color guard were elected officials, the same as mayor and police chief,” John said incredulously. “In a campaign speech, the winning color guard candidate said, ‘Boys, there’s not much I can tell you. It’s Old Glory, and I love her and everything she stands for.’” Nightly Bible studies were not compulsory, but the boys knew that many of their peers would attend. Feeling out of place, Dashiell described the atmosphere as “oppressive and hypocritical,” and the boys worried that they had made a mistake.
Sunday started with a nondenominational memorial service. The main speaker talked about freedom of religion and how America was a nation of immigrants. “But then he started talking about those people who refuse to assimilate, refuse to learn the language, and then have the nerve to complain,” Sam told me. “He ended by saying that you have the right to free speech, but you also have the right to go back where you came from.”
As the boys prepared for the state party conventions that night, the McCallum three felt as if they were on the outside looking in. While about half of the boys were elected or appointed to offices, the rest were relegated to the peanut gallery, expected to sit, watch, and keep quiet. “If you tried to voice an opinion, you got shot down,” Dashiell told me. When Sam complained to a counselor that the minority voice was being suppressed during the debate over how strongly to word the party’s plank condemning gay marriage, he was told, “We can’t interfere with democracy.”
The boys were learning the eye-opening lesson that democracy in action is neither pretty nor elegant, but what troubled them more was a pattern of gay bashing that began to emerge. Asked at the convention to