My Life in Collections: Girl Scout Badges, Age 10

Practicing adulthood through the things I collected during my childhood.

Girl Scout Sash c. 1960s. Flickr/Steve Snodgrass

“Badges mean nothing in themselves, but they mark a certain achievement and they are a link between the rich and the poor. For when one girl sees a badge on a sister Scout’s arm, if that girl has won the same badge, it at once awakens an interest and sympathy between them.”

— Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts

Real talk: Adults in the United States spend a lot of time shielding kids from knowledge of the family’s income level. They do this for all the best reasons — the hope that rich kids won’t be spoiled, that poor kids won’t be terrified. They do it out of a commitment to the anti-monarchic ideal that we’re all created equal and anybody can grow up to be the President. They do it because they have lived through a bunch of income levels themselves: saying “We’re well-off” erases ramen-eating grad school days, and “We’re about to lose the house” can rub shoulders with “As soon as this business takes off.”

Nobody wants kids to feel guilty or doomed. But still, come on. It’s obvious when one friend has a tennis court in her hedge-ringed yard and another friend’s dollhouse is made of cardboard boxes. You know who has more than you. We’re all very attuned to it.

My younger sister, who went to high school in a wealthier neighborhood than I did (see: “lived through a bunch of income levels”) said over lunch a few weeks ago that her friends hadn’t noticed their mutual income disparities; my husband, who spent his childhood on insufficient food stamps, did the pasta-chewing equivalent of a spit take. So did my mom, who grew up with three siblings in a house with two bedrooms, both occupied by adults. (She slept on the porch. Her brother, who stayed up later to listen to the radio, took the couch.) What my sister meant was, “I knew who was poor, but it didn’t affect how I saw them.” What she didn’t see was the trips her friends didn’t take. The parties they didn’t throw. The art projects they didn’t do. Because of money.

It’s a wonderful dream to think we all have the same freedom of opportunity when we make decisions about our lives. However, as a sincere belief, it’s a way of singing kumbaya around the campfire. On which subject…

Collection Four: Girl Scout Badges

Active: Ages 7–10. Discarded: Never.

I have no memory of joining the Brownies, but I remember my Brownie sash and its beautiful rows of sewn-on “try it” triangles. From 1986 to 1989, only 15 Brownie badges existed, and I had all of them; it seemed inevitable after two years of steady weekly attendance. But there were greater things ahead: at the end of third grade, I crossed a rainbow bridge made of crepe streamers to receive a blank green vest: a real Girl Scout uniform, to be filled with real Girl Scout patches, circular demonstrations of specialized skills so diverse that no two vests could be alike. The front would be reserved for military-style honors in subjects like “looking your best” and “computer fun,” reflecting my ability to dress in “spring” shades as I commanded a pixel turtle to draw a pentagon. The back would document attendance at once-in-a-lifetime jamborees, biker gang style.

(Since this is The Billfold, I feel obligated to report that my cookie sales were negligible. I believed in the product, which sells itself. I put in my time knocking on neighbors’ doors. However, the girls who made big sales did it by getting their order forms into the places where adults with disposable income congregated, i.e. their parents’ offices. My mom — my scout leader for one of those years — stayed home and had strong ideas about my doing these sorts of character-building things for myself, which I now suspect might have been another way of saying, “No, that sounds boring.” My dad was a manager and thought it would put the people he supervised in an ethically compromised position if it seemed they might curry favor through buying his daughter’s Thin Mints. However, my parents were happy to buy and eat 20 boxes of cookies or more and have continued to do so through my post-Scouting years, because like I said the product sells itself.)

I would probably have stuck to Scouting indefinitely — I had dreams of cadet blue — if it weren’t for two paradigm shifts, the first of which set the stage for the second. The summer between fourth and fifth grade, we moved. I’d joined the Brownies at an American-curriculum private school in England, thanks to a three-year “foreign office” posting my dad took at work. When that was over, we headed back to Texas, and I reenrolled in public school. This changed my troop’s complexion considerably.

Before, we’d been a handful of WASPs, the daughters of international business and the State Department. We’d lived on a landscape of rolling green lawns and woodlands. I’d spent the last few summers building a stick fort in the rhododendron hedge, and eating so many wild blackberries I developed a temporary allergy. Now, I was among more than a dozen working-class urban kids. They did not have stay-at-home moms, camping equipment, or opportunities for quiet birdwatching.

This wasn’t exactly a downgrade; the snacks were much spicier, and it was easier to jump rope on pavement than grass. I might have preferred crafts like silk embroidery, but that didn’t blind me to the utility of spray-painted six-pack rings bent into flowers to decorate a pickup truck parade float. If my fellow Scouts thought I was a weirdo and sometimes gossiped about me in Spanish, so be it. I had been the new kid many times already. I knew we would reach detente.

However.

I’m a compulsive reader. It’s a good way to accumulate a lot of esoteric knowledge. It’s also a good way to get hit by a car if you don’t disable internet browsing on your smartphone. My mom’s method of childproofing the house was to purge any books that might give me dangerous ideas before I developed the kind of moral fiber that would allow me to notice a loophole and not exploit it.

It did not occur to my new Scout leaders that there would be any risk in putting a Girl Scout handbook on the table and then leaving the room. It did not occur to them that they’d left a Machiavellian 10-year-old with the guide to secret Masonic rituals, the absorption of which would earn her the adulation of her tribe. And sure enough, what I discovered as I turned page after page was that I already qualified for all the badges. I’ve done that, I said aloud. And that. And that. “What about that?” Yeah. Let me tell you about it, because I am clearly the coolest and best Junior Scout that’s ever lived.

The thing about Girl Scout badges is they’re designed to adjust to different resource levels. The handbook has suggestions for grand excursions, but there’s not really a floor. For instance, in the badge about exploring music, you can go to the symphony, or you can ask family members about their favorite songs. It fills the same requirement. Arguably, it’s never the activity that matters; it’s whether Scouts are actively engaged in thinking about the topic while they do it. It’s up to the Scoutmaster to pick something impressive enough for the troop to feel accomplished, but not so daunting it’s impossible.

In other words, the badges were worthless. The badges. were. worthless.

Also, I was impressing the heck out of my new troop, thanks to my worldliness.

Only a few minutes had passed when my mom came through the door and saw me with the book and the other Scouts gathered round. In an instant, she grasped what had happened. Her face was like Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

At about the same moment, I realized that something horrible and sickening was happening, something I didn’t have the words to describe, something that had to do with class and skin color and having the right accent and how disgraceful and dishonorable it was to ask other people to worship you for something like that.

My mom did not agree with me that I deserved all those badges, and I did not, I think, go back to Girl Scouts.

Economic Theses Explored:

As I saw it, the difference between adults and kids was competency. Therefore the most successful demonstration of adulthood was a broad skillset: not necessarily being the best in the room, but being good enough to get invited into all the rooms.

At the same time, it was clear the world wasn’t a perfect meritocracy. My uncle and my mother (both stay-at-home parents) had grown up in the same household, were equally clever at games and DIY home repairs, and were likely to make the same highbrow cultural references, but it was obvious they belonged to different social classes. The main difference I could see, one that certainly mattered to my uncle, was that mom had a college degree. (I figured our family incomes had to be roughly equal since my dad wore a suit to work and my aunt owned a business — a very chic hair salon.) So it wasn’t enough to be capable. You needed a credential.

Yet as my misadventure with the handbook demonstrated, credentials and money and class didn’t have a straightforward or one-directional relationship. It was easier to get a credential — like an honorary doctorate — if you were someone who didn’t need the credential.

I’d stumbled into the complexities of labor market segmentation, and was feeling my way toward Max Weber’s theory of stratification. (Weber is usually classed as a sociologist instead of an economist, but he’s one of those adults who was good enough to get invited into multiple rooms. He self-termed his field economic sociology.) My market position was a good one. Years later, a number of my high school classmates would remember me as having been the valedictorian and the president of student council. I wasn’t even the salutatorian, and never once attended a student council meeting, even as a guest. But I didn’t need to. I fit the stereotype.

Economists tend to refer to these things as market distortions, ways in which a marketplace isn’t perfectly competitive. Human capital economists spend a lot of time trying to put a number on how valuable a given degree is, as measured by eventual income, and how much that varies with the alumnus’s pre-degree social class. Essentially, they’ve found you can get away with not going to Harvard if everyone figures you could have gone to Harvard, but if you’re nonwhite, or your parents aren’t “our sort of people,” it makes a huge difference. If I put on a Girl Scout badge, it probably doesn’t change your impression of me; you probably think “of course.” For somebody else, it’s a stereotype challenge that maybe moves her into another, higher category — that gets her into a room. (The best description I’ve read is Tressie McMillian Cottom’s essay about the ways her black mother’s education and her luxury clothing made it possible for her neighbors to access the government services to which they were entitled.)

None of this is, or should be, surprising to the kind of person who reads The Billfold, but it was sad and strange for a 10-year-old who had always been smart and talented, but who had always also secretly been white this whole time — one of those open secrets where you think it’s a description of what you look like.

When you’re a kid, “life’s not fair” usually means you didn’t get what you want, not the opposite. From that point on, I was going to have to figure out how to balance my feminist ideas that I deserved to be in charge as much as anyone with this other kind of injustice that puts me in charge when maybe I shouldn’t be. Which is another market distortion on my part, and a struggle for a lot of reasons. It was a huge relief to eventually discover the term “intersectional feminism” via Flavia Dzovidan of the late, great Tiger Beatdown (a blog self-described as “kumbaya motherf*cker central,” so perhaps fellow Scouts).

Accuracy of Beliefs About Adulthood:

These are my current merit badges, sewn onto my favorite green cardigan.

They’re from HiLoBrow, courtesy of new media artist Peggy Nelson, and are evidence that I am feral, good at games, and spend a lot of time on the Internet. I do not have the badge for knowing the secret to making money with my art.

A few months ago, I read an editorial in Politico about “out of control” licensing requirements for jobs like barbering, interior design, and upholstering. Without ever using the name “Uber” or “gig economy,” it basically says “I should be able to pay anybody to do any service I want, for whatever they’ll accept, and it’s ridiculous that the government gets in the way of my haircut.” In other words — in fact, in the words used in the editorial — licensed fields have barriers to entry. They are inefficient markets, made inefficient in the service of special interests like taxi medallion holders. The writer expresses a lot of concern for the poor people who aren’t able to get these licenses, and thus these jobs, particularly since the fields for which a license is required are ever expanding.

The writer works for Freedom Partners, which is a front for the Koch brothers. Freedom Partners works to promote the benefits of free markets, which is the friendly way of saying they’re virulently anti-union. The way you collectively bargain when you don’t have a union — when you are a contractor or small business proprietor who doesn’t have a shared workplace — is you form a trade group. You add a licensing requirement. You demand credentials.

This is absolutely a market distortion. No way around it. It’s a market distortion that happens to favor labor — to raise the average wage of someone who works in the industry by insulating them from “amateur” competition. And for the most part, the people who get the wage boost don’t belong to highly advantaged classes.

I tend to think it’s not possible to have an undistorted market — that there will always be hiring biases, even in the absence of sexism or racism. As a consumer or hiring manager, there’s a limited amount of time I’m willing to spend on making a decision; I’m going to look for a way to narrow my focus in the early going. Maybe that means I toss all the resumes that don’t have at least an M.A. Maybe I toss all the resumes that do have an M.A. Maybe I rank the digital cameras by the size of their CMOS chips. Maybe I only look at dating profiles from guys in a specific height range. It takes less time to figure out how tall somebody is than whether he makes me laugh.

Essentially, I think we want to be able to discriminate, so we can hurry up and pick somebody. Discrimination is efficient — not in the economics sense, but psychologically. Me, I like a license, something with hours of work and a maybe flawed but accountable licensing board. My gut says that crowdsourced credentials — “5 star” ratings on Yelp, Uber, Airbnb — not only drive down wages by expecting more work for the same payment, but are more dependent on social class.

I don’t want to self-award badges. I want that duty to stay with the Scoutmaster.

What about you, Billfolders? Were you in Scouts, and did the experience awaken in you an interest and sympathy between rich and poor, as Daisy Gordon Low hoped? Or an aptitude for direct sales? If you have intriguing credentials to show off in the comments, I am eager to applaud you.

Romie Stott’s genre-bending fiction and poetry have appeared in Arc, Farrago’s Wainscot, Strange Horizons, Punchnel’s, Dark Mountain, and The Toast. As a filmmaker, she’s been a guest artist at the National Gallery (London), ICA Boston, and Dallas Museum of Art. She has a bachelor of science in Economics.

Previously:

Comments