One of the oldest traditions in Scouting is the Scoutmaster Minute. Typically given at the end of a scout meeting or outing, it is the one time that the Scoutmaster gets to consistently address the troop. I think Scoutmasters overlook its potential for inspiring fun, adventure, and adherence to the Scout Law in everyday life.
BSA literature describes it this way:
Occurring at the closing of the meeting, it is the thought that will go home with the boys. It is the time to teach one of the ideals of Scouting. The Scoutmaster’s Minute is a special time when you have the attention of all the boys in the troop, and it is your opportunity to convey a special message of inspiration. Many of the Scoutmaster’s Minutes listed below are parables, short stories about everyday people and occurrences that illustrate a moral attitude or religious principle.
In my experience, many Scoutmasters struggle with this aspect of the job for one simple reason: the Scoutmaster Minute is best when it is personal.
The problem is made worse by the abundance of web sites that supply ideas for Scoutmaster Minutes. Many of them are excellent stories with superb moral connotations. I highly recommend scanning them for ideas. But before you use them, ask yourself “Do I have a story from my life (preferably my youth) that I can tell to convey the same moral?” If you do, your story is 10x more powerful, and more fun to tell. I find that I can relate most of the online suggestions to some form of experience in my life.
Another suggestion is when you are at work or in the shower day dreaming and you remember something noteworthy from your youth, record it. Write it down or enter into your phone. At 50+ years old, I figure that if I recall something from my youth, however obscure, it probably means that it left a lasting impression on me for some reason. What is the reason? How can I relate it in a story to scouts?
I have contributed to selecting new Scoutmasters for our Troop. One question I start with is “Have I heard this candidate tell tales of his youth?” For most, I would have spent considerable time with them as Assistant Scoutmasters before they became candidates for Scoutmaster. If I haven’t heard of stories from their youth, I would question whether he had the youthful experiences that would lead him to become a great Scoutmaster. I would certainly probe it more. I don’t think there is a particular youth experience (ex. rural vs. urban) that, alone, make a Scoutmaster more successful. But, whatever their youth experience, it should have made a lasting impression on them leading to stories around the campfire. These stories become the basis for great Scoutmaster Minutes.
Great Scoutmaster Minutes are told with gusto, visuals, and with inflections and pauses that bring the story to life. (Watch Garrison Keeler videos on YouTube.) You have to hold the Scout’s attention. And the way to do that is to have them visually imagine themselves in your place during the story. Paint the picture with words, including sights sounds and smells from when it happened. Immerse yourself in the story as you tell it including walking around the room. Use the scouts as props; if the story involves a tree, pick the tallest scout to be your tree. Sometimes your stories must be limited to an actual one minute. But, with proper planning, they can often be much longer and probably should be. Scouts love stories.
Finally, make sure the story has a moral. State it clearly at the end and let them know it has impacted your life. Say how. If you made mistakes in the story, admit them! You aren’t trying to set yourself up as perfect. Scouts will make mistakes along the way and will be inspired to know that they might become a Scoutmaster anyway. After all, you did it.
I worked hard at this as Scoutmaster and believe I achieved some success because the scouts still remember several of them. Two of the most popular are detailed below. Can you use them, you ask? No. Not because I care for copyrights or attribution. Because they aren’t as good as YOUR’S when YOU tell them. What are yours? I hope mine inspire you to discover them.
I grew up in rural Mississippi on a farm. We had a lot of farm work to do as boys: feeding cattle, planting crops, fixing fence, and such. But we also had a lot of free time – and a lot of forest and fields. Our family farm (including my surrounding relatives’ lands) were over 2000 acres. But our span was much greater than that since we were pretty much free to explore the neighbors’ property, too. As a twelve year old, we would roam 5 or more miles from home on any summer day – horses and dirt-bikes make for a very large playground.
One particular interest was “exploring.” That was simple: find a stream and walk it. Eventually it would lead to a creek, then a river or swamp. And, with some luck a new swimming hole that no one knew about. That was the pot of gold that made a great summer day.
There were kids in the nearby town who almost never swam in natural swimming holes. They went swimming in the town pool. The water was crystal clear but there were lifeguards, adults, and rules. Freedom and the sense of exploration meant much more to us. Not everyone was welcome in the town pool, too. You had to pay money and I never saw any black kids there. Rural Mississippi was still fairly segregated in the 1970s.
On one particular summer day, two friends and I set out following a new stream early in the morning. We walked for probably 5 miles until it widened into a fairly large creek. We crossed a well-known highway under a bridge where the creek emptied into an even more well-known river, called Fair River. That river would later dump into the mighty Pearl River which flowed from the State capital of Jackson all the way to the Gulf of Mexico where it make the “throat” of Mississippi . (Mississippi is often described as a head facing west, so I use my own head as a visual.)
But on this day, we wouldn’t venture that far. Fair River winds back and forth through the Mississippi flatlands. Spring floods pile up the sand around each bend to create giant sand bars. Those are great for fishing and cookouts. But not so great for swimming because the water is shallow and fast flowing. To make a great swimming hole, you need the river to cut through a patch of soap stone – and today we found just that.
We could hear the rustle of the water fall as we rounded a bend and saw a two hundred foot span of perfectly level soapstone jutting out of the water. On the downstream side of the water fall lay a absolutely perfect, almost perfectly round, swimming hole. The soapstone ledge made for an ideal diving platform about 12 inches above the water. As is common in waterfalls, we could crawl under the overflowing water to hide beneath the current – the water crashing down in front of us as we scratched for a grip in the slippery soapstone to prevent us from getting swept down stream. On the east side of the river lay a large patch of cattail reeds which blocked the view of the bank on that side.
(I used the scouts to form a large circle in the room to represent the swimming hole. On one side of the circle I had 6 scouts lean forward and wave their hands at the ground to represent the waterfall. I crawled on my knees under their arms to represent us sitting in the air pocket that the waterfall created. Two scouts on one side with their jackets opened up represented the canopy of the reeds.)
After our initial exploration of the site, as always, we began to play “gator.” This is a simple game of tag – the person who is “it” is the gator. To tag the next gator, they have to tap another player on the head above water. So, to get away from the gator, you either have to out swim them, or dive underwater. If you leave the water for more than 10 seconds, you automatically become the gator. It is a loud and rough game that we often played for hours.
After 30 minutes, I got the funny feeling we were being watched. From behind the reeds, I noticed three dark faces with bright white eyes starring through. An older girl of about 13 years with two younger children, a boy and a girl, who I presumed were her siblings, looking through the reeds at the swimming hole. They were too cautious to move forward, but too determined to walk away.
Clearly, we hadn’t discovered this perfect swimming hole. They had. Probably many generations ago. They wouldn’t have been welcome in the town pool. But nature had made up for it in a small way. Nature had given them a measure of fairness. Fair River.
We picked up our gear and proceeded further down stream.
Boy Scouts is like Fair River. It can’t correct all the problems in life. But it helps. It leverages nature and the outdoors. The deer, the stream, the tree, the mountain -they don’t see rich/poor, black/white, urban/rural, or even smart/not so smart. They reward adventure and a sense of wonder.
We all look the same in uniform – we distinguish ourselves only by how well we adhere to the Scout Law and Oath. Use your scouting experience to enforce fairness and fair-play in all that you do.
Alan and the Snake
I was never a Scout. Growing up in rural Mississippi, the outdoor appeal of Scouting got lost among the natural setting in which we grew up. As an adult, I can see the advantages I would have had if I’d looked at Boy Scouts through a wider lens. But as a young boy in the country, it seemed like doing the same things I was doing every day – only with adult supervision. Blah!
As a boy, my friends and I loved to explore. We would meet some random place and just start walking. Sometimes following a stream, other times just heading in a direction. We would inevitably become lost but could always climb a hill or tree to get our bearings against the the long ridge lines that rose above the valleys cut by countless streams and creeks winding through the Mississippi clay soil.
On one a particular day, we were following a river through a pine tree crop and got lost. The long-needle pine trees in Mississippi grow very tall and never shed all of their needles. The result is a canopy blocking most of the sun and a cool bed of brown pine needs on the ground. All other trees are thinned by the lack of sun so the patch feels quite open and very pleasant on a hot summer day. A good place for a rest and chance to gain our bearings.
Among the tall pine trees you’ll occasionally find a pine sapling. These small trees struggle to gain enough light to compete with their full-grown cousins. So they grow straight and tall as quickly as they can to reach the light that will eventually allow them to expand and grow strong.
As we settled down for a rest in the middle of this pine thicket, my buddy Alan spots the most unlikely of pine saplings. It was 20 feet high, 4 inches in diameter at its base, and had no limbs except for a few small ones right at the top. Among those few small limbs was an enormous bird’s nest – big enough for a hawk and much too big for a sparrow. At first I thought it might be a squirrel’s nest but I’d seen those before. This looked different.
Being the curious type, Alan decides to climb the tree. But Alan was a pretty big kid and this was a skinny tree. So as he shimmied up it, the tree started to bend. He climbed with his arms and locked his legs around the tree to support his weight. The higher he went up the tree, the more it would bend. By the time he reached the top of the tree, the tree was bent over so much that Alan was just 2 feet of of the ground and holding on for dear life. We were already laughing at the sight!
Finally Alan approaches the nest and peers over the edge. His eyes get big and he lets go of the tree. The subsequent flat fall on the ground knocks the breath out of him. He lay stunned and huffing as the tree whipped back and forth- sling-shotting a small ground rattlesnake skyward. The snake landed one foot from Alan’s head. A bite in the face could be deadly. And we were miles from home and no one knew where we were. (As I tell this story to Scouts, I’m laying on the floor by now and using my belt as the snake.)
If I had been in Boy Scouts, I would probably have never gotten lost. Scouts learn to use a compass and orienteering skills. We would have alerted our parents to our path – a standard procedure for Scouts as they go hiking. We would have had a first aid kit and a basic knowledge of how to treat a snake bite. The reptile and amphibian merit badge would have taught us to properly identify the snake, and to call it by its more common name: a “pygmy rattlesnake.” We would know to be calm. To organize ourselves to deal with the emergency. We knew very little about these skills.
But we did get one thing right: the laughing.
One day, you might find yourself in front of your son’s Boy Scout troop telling stories from your youth. What will you say? Will you tell them your latest scores from a video game? Or tell them about your new iPhone (which they will consider just a step above the rotary dial phones I used as a kid.) Such stories will bore them – and you won’t even remember them. You’ll remember, and they’ll want to hear, the stories about adventure and exploration. About testing your mettle in the outdoors. Stories like Alan and the Snake. The bear you saw at BSA summer camp. Breaking your sled at Klondike. Zip-lining at Jambo. Remember those stories and enjoy your time in Boy Scouts.