Saturday, May 30, 2015

And to Our Old Girls State,

2 years ago and some change, my high school guidance counselor very forcibly handed me an application to Volunteers Girls State. He told me he thought I would be perfect for it despite my "I don't know"s and my skeptical looks. When I brought the application home with even more skeptical "Im not quite sure what this is all about, better not go" comments, to my dismay I was met by a mother who reminded me that I really should go, you know, for my college applications and what not. So, reluctantly, even though I distinctly remember trying to get out of it a few times, I sent in an application for Volunteer Girls State and was accepted into the program as a Delegate in 2013. And then my world was changed. Here it is, 2015, and I just finished up my second year as a counselor. Yeah, you could say that it left an impact on me.

I'm not going to try to explain Volunteer Girls State because no matter how elegantly I write or how competent you are, you will never get it. Yes, we teach citizenship, but not in the way you're thinking. Yeah, it involves creating a government, but not the kind you're used to. Sure, we make sisterhood-type bonds, but none like you've ever experienced before. No offense to you, reader, but you just won't understand.

And that's okay, because you don't need to understand. That's a phenomena that we joke about every year- explaining to your friends why you wore a costume made entirely of trash bags and paper on stage while singing a song that doesn't make sense, or why you stood up on night one and introduced yourself during your first election. At Girls State those memories will bring back chuckles, even tears. To you, reader, it brings back nothing. No words can describe what we experience, no pictures drawn can fully help you get it. But you get that we love it. You understand that we are changed, and that is all that you need to know.

And boy, are we changed. I tell my citizens every year that when I was that tiny, scared delegate back in 2013 who didn't really want to even go to VGS, I ran for every office I could get my hands on. Thing is, I didn't win any of those elections. Not a single one of them. At first fear visibly enters into that sweet little scared-to-death delegate. "You didn't win ANYTHING??". No, I did win something, I usually reply. It may not have been a tangible title, but I won something a lot deeper, more beneficial. I won a chance to get up and share my beliefs, whether it be beliefs on a made-up city/count issue or beliefs on a bill that I myself wrote. I found my voice when I got up in front of a room and spoke passionately (though also nervously) and for that I owe a debt to Girls State that I will never be able to repay.

When I returned as a counselor for the first time last year, I was able to actually work with the amazing women that changed my life just the year before. Engineers, Harvard grads, politicians, military women, business women, presidents/vice presidents of companies, the list goes on. Bottom line was I felt even smaller than I had felt as a delegate. How in the world amongst a group of women  this amazing and distinguished was little ole me going to make an impact on 40 some odd high school junior girls? I looked up to these women, stood in awe of how much wisdom and knowledge they had. I wanted their humor, their passion, their articulate speaking habits, I wanted all of them. A famous quote from Newton says that he is only able to see as far as he did because he stood on the shoulders of giants, and I wanted these women to be my giants.

But forget that superficial attributes these women had, what else did they contribute to make mine and countless other girls' experiences to magical? It was the love. As a delegate, I just thought the program kind of just happened. As a counselor, I see the intentions. I see these women assuring that every girl is reminded we are so glad she's here, that her voice matters, that she is loved and safe here. I also see those women assuring each other of that, even after they've been there for 50 years. I see love, friendship that lasts forever, growth. I am so glad that that group of ladies, wether they know it or not, are my giants.

Friday and Saturday. The counselors arrive for orientation. We go over philosophy, emergency plans, decorating, meals, the works. For two days we buzz with excitement, dreaming of what our little delegates will be like, which city will hold the governor, how are lives might be changed this week. Nerves mix with waves of excitement and I am filled with love before I even meet my girls.

Sunday. Nervous citizens and anxious parents arrive at dorms. I lug a suitcase up a flight of stairs, show them to their rooms and hand them their new name tags. I welcome them home and see who they might become in just about 5 days before they even unpack. They usually glance at their parents, teary-eyed, because they don't want to stay at this place. I don't let it phase me because I know that in a few short days, they will be crying because they never want to leave this place.

Monday. We make nervous small talk. We begin to form a city from the ground-up, electing a mayor, city council women, party delegates. The girls aren't sold just yet, some even seem miserable. Just give it some time, I tell myself.

Tuesday. We combine with another city to form a county. We elect county officials, make more nervous chit-chat. Tonight, however, is Fast Song- a most magical night. Tonight the girls laugh and dance and sing and bond. Tonight, Friendships are formed.

Wednesday. Our girls write bills over ideas they are passionate about. We combine with yet another city to form a legislative district and elect representatives and senators based off of those ideas. They immediately head to legislature to begin. Our governor candidates debate.

Thursday. We watch the TN Supreme Court, hear speeches from our own Supreme Court nominees. That night is Olympics, where we dance and cheer each other on with as much love as we can muster. Tonight, friendships are strengthened.

Friday. We elect our governor and have an inauguration for her, complete with a ball. We begin the rounds of good-byes from the stage and the girls cry together, their bodies shaking because they know that this will never happen again. Tonight, they realized they are sisters.

Saturday. I give those bright young women who are completely different one last squeeze as they meet their parents again. Their parents are shocked. Who is this girl? Not their daughter, that's for sure.

And that's Girls State. What's the big deal though, right?

There is one particular night of Girls State that I arrive to already with fresh tears in my eyes. Before I left this week for VGS, I was laughing at why we all blubber like babies that night. I mean, after all, it's not like we're graduating or anything! We get to come back in one year and do it all over again. This week I was reminded why that night always gets me.

As I watch the procession of the governor, the legislature, the chorus members, I look at my city. They are sitting close, tears streaming down their faces, confident still. These are not the same young ladies I met not 5 days ago, no sir. These ladies know where they are going. They are confident. Those who were once shy now say what is on their minds. Those who were once to boisterous now listen to what others have on their minds as well. These ladies found their purpose, where they belong. They found that their ideas and thoughts mattered, that someone not only cared but loved them for it. They found a home for their heart, a home that for some of them is the first home they've ever had. I bawl like a baby because I see the leaps and the bounds these women made this week and it wrecks me. Absolutely wrecks me.

And then in come the letters. The girls will write notes of thanks, and this is my second favorite part of the week only next to when they first arrive in our city. I get to read about how these girls who I am amazed by look up to me. I read about how I helped them to get out of their comfort zone, let loose, find who they were. I get called a role model, a sister. I get met with tear-filled hugs because they will miss my inspiration. I get told that I am actually these girls' giant. And it might be the most magical feeling I have ever experienced in my life.

On Sunday I make final rounds, making sure nothing was left in the dorm rooms in the chaos of moving out. Rooms there were once filled with decorations and beautiful smiles and laughter are empty and dark and lonely. For a moment today I almost let this make me sad, but then I remembered that left scattered amongst the leftover bobby pins on the floor were memories, legacies. This process doesn't stop here for the girls, no ma'am. They will now vote as an informed citizen. They will say the pledge of elegance correctly. They will ask questions, speak up, continue to grow for the rest of their lives. Girls State can not be contained on one college campus. And that make my heart smile.

So no, readers, you may still have no idea what Girls State is. In fact, I may have even confused you more. But now you know how I feel about it, why I go back again and again, why I dream about it year-round. Girls State is magical. There's something hidden in the walls, something tucked away under the beds. Its those 20 seconds of insane, embarrassing courage that everyone wishes they were brave enough to take hold of them. Here at Girls State, we do.

Raise your voices, raise them high
Sing to Girls State and here's why
Look to Girls State and you'll find
Tomorrow's leaders of mankind

We are the future builders,
builders in a band
And we come from Girls State
The best state in the land
We are up and coming,
progressive, kind and strong
And to our old Girls State
We proudly sing our song!

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