About 2 hours into Boys State, we were standing in line in Jester Dormitory when one of the boys in my city grunted. Boys State gathers “boys from every part of Texas” and this one was from East Texas.
He stepped out of line, turned to face the rest of us, and held a flip phone high in the air:
“My baseball coach’s wife sends me dirty text messages when she’s bored.”
And so it began. A thousand teenage boys, all idiots, spending a week cartoonishly rebuilding the Texas government on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin. A few dozen adults supervised, desperately trying to keep boys from sneaking off campus or seceding from the federal government.
I attended Boys State a long time ago. My school sent me and other schools sent a thousand more. I have been trying to describe it to people ever since. No one took me seriously. People believe it exists, but they tend to be skeptical about the mash-up of Lord of the Flies + Friday Night Lights + Veep.
Until now. Thanks to the Boys State documentary (available on Apple TV) we have proof. You should go watch it - the entire film is fantastic.
Some parts of Boys State, and its participants, are and were earnest and meaningful. Some parts were absurd and a few were downright upsetting. And all of it makes perfect sense when you think about a thousand teenage Texan boys huddled together. I spent the entire week with my jaw on the floor.
I wrote this for a British friend of mine who wanted a play-by-play. I’m sorry.
What in the hell?
Boys State is a program sponsored by the American Legion to teach teenagers about representative government. The American Legion created the annual event in the 1930’s to combat “less American” youth political camps. Eventually, a Girls State followed.
Boys State is probably best-known for three things:
- that photo of Bill Clinton shaking President Kennedy’s hand when JFK welcomed that year’s Boys State delegation at the White House,
- a list of alumni ranging from Cory Booker to Lamar Alexander to Tim Cook to Ajit Pai to Hines Ward to Nick Saban, and
- occasionally the Texas edition does something so outrageous it makes the news.
I attended the Texas edition.
Teenage boys are the worst creatures
The problem with picking teenage boy leaders is that they are still teenage boys and those are the worst creatures on earth. Have you ever observed how teenage boys interact? They can’t go 5 minutes without hitting one another. We multiply each other’s worst traits. We are walking bundles of self-doubt and aggression and enthusiasm, awkwardly piloting bodies we do not fit into yet, convinced we cannot die.
And the selection process for Boys State didn’t help. Almost every high school in the State picks 1 or 2 juniors to attend the summer program. It seems most guidance counselors find one “jock, sports team leader” type and one “nerdy, student council president” type. I will let you guess which type I was.
This pattern presents a problem, one mirrored in the US Senate. Tiny high schools in West Texas send 2 boys. Massive high schools in Houston send 2 boys. As a result, the program skews remarkably rural and painfully white.
The boys, for the most part, did not care about this and the demographics became crucial to the rise of a populist leader later in the week.
I was warned
One of my best friends was two grades ahead of me and had attended Boys State previously. Before I left, we ate dinner at Panda Express on North Lamar and he tried to break it down for me. He did not love it.
“Conservatives in a contest to see who can be the most Republican or the most funny. Someone proposed a law that Girls State had to make lunch.”
Like my friend, I was probably more liberal than most of the kids in our high school. A teacher once called my mother to warn her I was a Democrat (thankfully, my mother balked at the McCarthyism). I didn’t lean left because of some intellectual virtue; I mostly owed my politics to a 19” television in my room and the nightly double-header of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
Although, no one I knew at my age was very political in the other direction. I was about to meet a few hundred people who would change that.
“So bring your binoculars, you’re about to witness something rowdy.”
The buddy system
I won’t try to document the program mechanics in great detail, but I’ll sketch it for you. Each boy is randomly assigned to 1 of 2 political parties. Every seat in the State government is up for grabs, from local District Judges to statewide positions like Governor. Jesus returned for the Rapture and only took the government back with him - these boys were left on earth and had to fill in the gaps.
The parties elect some boys as party leadership and these guys take a blank sheet of paper and invent a platform. The two platforms rarely diverge. Their candidates then compete in primaries before a regional election.
Boys are organized regionally into “cities” of about 30 kids. Your city elects a mayor. All participants wear a lanyard with party affiliation and city of residence.
Our city worked with a neighboring metro to try and pass a county-level resolution to rename the 3rd city in our area. We hated the 3rd city and the proposed name was pretty ugly. Adults vetoed this. Teenage boys will find any excuse to rally together and mock a rival.
You share a dorm with another member of your city. My dorm mate and I could not figure out how to operate the trundle beds at Jester Dormitory, so we just yanked the mattresses onto the floor and crashed like that for a week. This embarrassed me because my parents met as RAs at Jester Dormitory (for college, not a mock government) and here I was, one generation later, sleeping on its floor because I was dumb.
About 24 hours into the Boys State experience, I met Jack, someone who is still a dear friend of mine. Jack and I had a lot in common (we still do). Both pretty liberal, both pretty academic, and both not terribly interested in participating at a deeper level.
We spent the week together sitting on the sidelines, watching the chaos. We went on to become best friends as students at The University of Texas and ate lunch together every week for 4 years.
A failed coup
By some magic, certain boys suddenly became dorm-room names. I was astounded by it. These dudes found a dozen strangers, built a cult of personality, and launched well-oiled campaign machines in 2 or 3 days.
One boy, I’ll call him JR, was a portly kid from West Texas. He was in my party. I don’t think he believed in anything and I loved that about him. He was nakedly ambitious about winning the Governor race and plotted every action he took, from eating to walking. He spoke with a thick drawl and never remembered your name. He was always sweaty.
Other boys ran for our party’s nomination, but JR’s bombastic speeches won over the ~500 weasels in our caucus. The others ran as more capable candidates. JR ran on Texas and just out-Texas’d the lot of them on his way to a primary victory.
This platform makes sense to me. I cannot overstate how much Texans adore Texas. You do not love anything in your life as much as a teenage boy in Texas loves the Lone Star State. I have lived in Europe for over a year and I still miss Texas and take pride in it whenever possible. Appealing to that emotion is unstoppable.
The runaway JR train caused our party leadership to grow nervous. He pushed onward. His sweaty palm shook hands across the aisle and his popularity grew.
I could not wait for the last night of campaigning, some kind of dueling speech or debate. I had spent the week flabbergasted by every word this kid said - I was there to watch the finale.
When the night came, JR stood up from his seat and broke character. His speeches were normally all-caps love stories about Texas played at one volume: a constant yell. On this night, he stunned the room by launching into a tirade about how another candidate stole his speech.
He left the stage and began to wander around the room. The speech began to unravel, I lost sight of him, and then heard a high-pitched “whoop!” followed by a loud thud. JR had physically collapsed.
A mix of followers and adults gathered around him and carried him out. He was okay, but that cost him the election. I don’t remember who ran against him, but they celebrated a process-of-elimination victory.
The week concluded and I came up for air. I left campus and went on a dinner date with my then-girlfriend at Zax on Barton Springs. I glossed over most details about the program. I am now married to her.
So, should we keep doing this?
Well, at least not in its current format. I love the idea of sequestering a bunch of teenagers and trying to get them to build something. And, to my amazement, these teenagers did!
They didn’t just go through the motions or even the campaigns. By some magic, the program found kids to create and run a newspaper over the week - an actual Fourth Estate developed. Friendships formed, people took it seriously, they elected a government. All for imaginary politics points. If you watch the documentary, which I hope you do, you’ll see just how tangible it all feels.
The program also distills so many problems endemic to Texas and other places. Girls State is never treated with the same level of prestige or attention or expectations and I don’t think anyone is fixing that. I remember talking to my friend in my class who attended Girls State and she hated every minute. This is so sad, because the leaders at Girls State are absolutely the best group to build a better government from the ground up.
And it’s just not just a challenge of boys, the problem extends to which boys. 90% of the boys at this program won the privilege lottery. White, male, educated, not-poor, and sent to Austin because someone thought they were special. Yet they so often lacked empathy. Born on third base and think they hit a triple. A lot of the politics oriented around pulling up the ladder or denying that privilege. I’d like to think this was a reflection of teenage insecurity and angst, but I think we all know that is not true. Maybe if I wasn’t a coward I would have pushed back more.
We should find a way for the program to better reflect the State. The game mechanics could be structured to consider the consequences of a platform that is not inclusive of other viewpoints. We need to fix the archaic gender divide. When we do, I hope girls win every race in the first Human State as a rebuke of the scandals of Boys State over the last few decades. A program like this, which somehow motivates teenagers to create and debate, could be so wonderful.
Some of it was special and earnest. Some of it was an outlet for the dumbest tendencies of teenage boys. All of it was something to behold. I’m glad I went, I’m glad I witnessed it, I hope it evolves.