Finding Their Voice
At a Girl Scout Singalong, the Message Is Refreshingly Real

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 10, 2007

When she entered ninth grade, Macy Gutermuth carried with her a dark secret. She lived in fear that her classmates would learn it and that her social life in her Baltimore County town would come to a screeching halt. The secret? Macy, now 16, was . . . still a Girl Scout.

Yesterday, at the 95th anniversary party of Girl Scouts of the USA, Gutermuth learned she was not alone. Really not alone.

An estimated 150,000 Girl Scouts from all 50 states descended on the Mall for an afternoon singalong, capping off four days of activities including Mystics and Nationals games. Kathleen Herles, the voice of Dora the Explorer, led old campfire favorites from a stage by the Washington Monument, some tunes prompting cheers that 12-year-olds usually reserve for Avril Lavigne. Girls roved the area in packs, exchanging S.W.A.P.S. (Special Whatchamacallits Affectionately Pinned Somewhere), home-decorated pins made for sharing. A large screen broadcast images of Girl Scouts of yore, and a grandmother assured her disbelieving granddaughter that yes, Scouts really did used to dress like that.

"It's amazing," says Macy, scanning the waves of "Still Singing After All These Years" T-shirts. "I had no idea there were so many of us."

Not that the organization is lacking in numbers. An estimated 2.7 million girls nationwide belong. But more than 2 million of them are 11 or younger -- enrollment declines throughout middle school. Currently there are only 103,606 Girl Scouts in the senior division, which includes grades 10-12.

Part of the decline has to do with the sheer busy-ness of high school. As homework increases and sports are joined, scouting falls to the wayside. But part of it, and there's just no other way to say it, is that Girl Scouts aren't cool. While Boy Scouts cap off their careers with the mythic résumé-boosting Eagle badge, the Girl Scout equivalent gets no respect. Ever heard of the Gold Award? Yeah.

To add insult to injury, senior Girl Scouts must deal with being either stereotyped as geeky cookie-sellers or lampooned as girls just waiting to go wild (thank you, college coeds, and your Halloween slut-ification of all things pure).

Macy learned the hierarchy of cool in middle school, which is why she kept her meetings with Troop 1595 mum for her first year of high school. During her sophomore year, she decided to come out of the cookie pantry, and she learned something shocking: Four of her friends were also secret Girl Scouts.

Macy is no nerd, by the way. She's got dark hair and big eyes, and is going to be a knockout in a few years. She and her troop mates listen to Nelly Furtado and Kellie Pickler (they love the song "Red High Heels"), and they look like they could easily sit at the popular table in the cafeteria. She and troop mate Jess are preparing to begin work on their Gold Awards next year, an endeavor that requires 65 hours of service and results in a project sustainable after the Scouts leave for college.

They're cute, they're smart, they're fun. Why would they be labeled geeks?

Part of it is the earnestness intrinsic to scouting, so at odds with the practiced boredom and casual cynicism that defines teen culture today. Being a Girl Scout requires a lack of self-consciousness. An ability to sing songs with lines like "When you make a promiiiiiiise, consider its importaaaaaance" in a round, without smirking. Being a Girl Scout requires a pure mind, even when singing "The Brownie Smile Song" ("I've got something in my pocket. . . . I keep it very close at hand in a most convenient place") .

So in their public, non-Girl Scout lives, senior Scouts are teased for being goody-goodies.

"It's such a relief to come to the singalong and not have to worry about what people are going to say," says Joanna Pollard, 13, a secret Girl Scout from Troop 1184 in Greensboro, N.C. She doesn't like the teasing--that exquisitely delivered eye-roll--she gets when people learn she's still a Scout, but she'd never dream of quitting.

"A lot of people our age just sit around and watch TV," says Joanna. "They don't care about their communities or the environment." Her troop is actively involved in several service projects, most recently cleaning up a community garden.

"People can't believe I'm still a Girl Scout," adds her troop mate Kristen Cossaart, 14. "Because they don't realize it's about so much more than cookies."

An hour before the singalong begins, the girls in Joanna and Kristen's troop decide to play a word-association game: One person calls out a category, and the other girls have to think of as many words as they can that belong, without repetition. The current category is "Girl Scouts," and the words called out are: friends, fun, respect, exciting, cookies, camping, different, spectacular, swimming, and s'mores. Then one girl accidentally repeats "friends" and the game dissolves into giggles. Silliness is highly valued by Girl Scouts; the songbook lists it as a primary reason for singing.

One can easily picture what words would have come up among non-Scouts if the category were "average teenage life": boys, grades, weight, pressure, self-esteem, pimples, boys. These girls don't talk about boys at all.

Being a Girl Scout seems, paradoxically, like a respite from being a teenage girl. The senior Scouts at the singalong are makeup-free, wearing baggy T-shirts and simple ponytails. There is a lot of squealing, but they squeal and giggle for each other, not members of the opposite sex. They show off dances they've choreographed -- one involves mimicking the lighting of a candle to brighten the path of a friend in need. They talk about their favorite Girl Scout songs, and the themes of those songs are self-confidence, treating other girls like sisters, and keeping "that Girl Scout feeling" in your heart.

So they're a little earnest. Maybe some are even a little goody-goody. But the better question coming from this event might not be "Why are these high-schoolers still in Girl Scouts?" but "When will they extend the program to college?"

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company