By Sarah Pridgeon
Back in England, we do not have 4-H programs or FFA. We play a different kind of football that doesn’t come with a Homecoming and we form our teams for netball rather than volleyball. When it comes to extracurricular activities, that which you guys take for granted is completely alien to me… at least, it was until last week.
The day that the Girl Scouts came back to town was a joyful one for me, because I am back on the most familiar of grounds with that particular activity. The Girl Guides in my country might have a slightly different name, but they are identical in every way that matters.
I was six years old when I first heard about the Brownie Guides, the youngest entry point for the organization. My grandparents took me to visit a local troop and I came away with widened eyes and a desperate yearning to sign up. I had witnessed an eight-year-old boiling an egg and could barely contain my exhilaration: clearly, being a Brownie meant being an actual grown-up.
Brown Owl, the leader of the troop, gave me a handbook to study while I waited for my seventh birthday – and study it is exactly what I did. It turned out, however, that a six-year-old can’t train themselves to be a Brownie, despite their best intentions.
The handbook began with a tale of the faery creatures who gave the troops their name. These helpful little souls would creep out at night and mend, tidy, cook and clean for the owners of the house so that they woke up to a home that was spick, span and ready for another day.
I found this story inspiring and, hoping to get a head start on the Brownie thing, decided I would do the same. I set my alarm for an unreasonably early hour and crept downstairs, full of anticipation at my own magnificent helpfulness.
Unfortunately, I was staying with my grandparents at the time and my grandmother was a meticulous housekeeper – every inch of that lower floor was gleaming and not a single item was out of place. This issue was compounded by the fact that I was six years old and had no real concept of spring cleaning. Dust, for example, was not an entity that I had been made aware of.
I wandered around for a while, straightening tissue boxes and making sure that the sofa cushions were lined up, but you’d have been hard pressed to spot any changes. I failed to make an impact, but I would at least have escaped without too much embarrassment if I had then chosen to go back to bed. Sadly, I did not.
As I stuck my nose into the kitchen to confirm that there were no dirty dishes either, my eyes landed on a loaf of bread. It was too much to bear. A crusty exterior and the fluffiest of centers, baked to perfection and left in the bread bin to await breakfast. I gazed upon it greedily and decided that nobody would notice if I dug a small amount of dough out of the middle.
A small amount became a slightly larger amount and all too soon it was glaringly obvious that someone had been meddling with that loaf, and that it probably wasn’t a mouse. I slunk back to bed and convinced myself that nobody would know it was me.
They did, of course. Worse still, my failure to make any kind of improvement to the appearance of the house made it impossible to convince them of the truth; as far as my grandparents were concerned, I had crept downstairs in the middle of the night to ruin a loaf of bread. It’s hard to convince anyone of your good intentions in the face of such overwhelming evidence.
Nevertheless, my transgressions did not prevent me from joining the Brownie Guides as soon as I reached the appropriate age. I began to make memories that I have carried through to this day – and to learn a few useful skills, to boot.
I learned, for example, how those girls had worked their magic to boil an egg, as well as how to tie knots or stare confusedly at an elderly person until they assure you that they are fine and don’t need any help after all. I discovered how to collect wildflowers and blackberries, sing campfire songs and otherwise emulate the children from classic story books. Last but certainly not least, this was also where I learned to make a cup of tea.
We didn’t spend quite as much time hiking and being outdoors as the scouts do over here, but we did go on regular excursions to exciting places. Our first outing was to Brownsea Island, just over the water from my home town. This was also the very first destination for a Boy Scout camping trip, back in the days of Lord Baden-Powell.
My favorite camping experience, however, was at Lulworth Cove, a seaside town on the Jurassic Coast. It was perhaps the best vacation of my life – and I’m including the ones where I scaled Mt. Vesuvius or experienced New York City for the first time. We ran across the meadows, hiked through the trees to play hide-and-seek, did chores in giggling groups, sang songs as we drank our nightly hot chocolate and took part in all sorts of games and activities that taught me much more than I realized at the time.
The only small downside came when, two days into the trip, we were called one by one to talk to Snowy Owl, the second in command. She asked us if we had “passed a stool” yet. I couldn’t remember seeing anything other than plastic chairs in the communal hall and, unsurprisingly, had never heard any other interpretation of the word.
I took a gamble, said that I had not passed any stools and was made to eat high-fiber cereal for the rest of the week instead of the scrambled eggs and bacon everyone else was given for breakfast. I believe I extended a written complaint to my mother when we prepared postcards to send home, but it didn’t make a difference. If only there had been a bread bin nearby, I could have sorted the problem myself in the middle of the night.
The Brownie Guides were a huge part of my young life, as were the Girl Guides when I graduated to the upper echelons. They taught me the value of working as a team, the benefits of being female and the enjoyment to be found in the simpler things in life. To this day, I cannot drink a mug of cocoa without humming “Kumbayah” – but I’m still a little gun-shy in bakeries.