Scouting September 2000

Rites of Passage

By Bill Sloan
Illustrations by Joel Snyder

Ceremonies, always a key part of Scouting, are more important than ever in today's society, in which, for many young people, the only formal acknowledgment of a major step toward adulthood is obtaining a driver's license.

An Arrow of Light ceremony—whether elaborate or simple—should always be considered serious business.

Around the flickering campfire, all eyes are fixed on an archer, dressed in the garb of an Indian warrior, as he pulls back his bowstring and sends a flaming arrow into a water-soaked hay bale.

Beside the campfire, an adult wearing a tribal chief's headdress turns to 10-year-old Danny, a wide-eyed Webelos Scout standing behind him.

"Retrieve your arrow, Daniel," the leader says. "You have earned it."

Danny eagerly moves forward and plucks the now-extinguished arrow from the bale. He gazes admiringly at its beautifully painted shaft, as cheers and applause rise from the audience seated around the fire.

Danny grasps his arrow tightly with both hands. His eyes are still wide, but an even wider grin has spread across his face.

Serious business

An Arrow of Light ceremony like this one recognizes Webelos Scouts who have earned Cub Scouting's highest award as fully prepared to enter Boy Scouting.

Such ceremonies can be painstakingly planned, elaborately staged, and enriched by years of tradition, innovation, and hard work; or, they may follow a simpler, more casual format.

Ceremonies in Scouting also focus attention on families and volunteers.

Either way, an Arrow of Light ceremony, like all ceremonies in Scouting, from Bobcat induction to an Eagle Scout court of honor, are serious business. Properly done, such time-tested rituals help make rank advancements and attainment of other goals truly memorable events, both for participants and observers.

Even adult leaders who have organized dozens of previous ceremonies are touched by a well-planned event.

"I always get a tingle of excitement when we do an Arrow of Light ceremony," confesses Michele Highley, Cubmaster of Pack 720 in Fenton, Mo., and a primary architect of the "flaming arrow" ritual described above. "And, I'm pretty sure if it affects me that way, it affects the kids, too."

In a larger sense, says Joe Glasscock, director of program development for the BSA's Boy Scout Division, traditional rites and ceremonies are principal cornerstones of the entire Scouting experience.

"Ceremonies have always been an indispensible and irreplaceable part of Scouting," Glasscock says. "From the earliest times, ceremonies emphasizing the rites of passage from boyhood to manhood have helped individuals develop a healthy, well-adjusted self-image, and this is one of Scouting's principal goals."

Not as common today

In society today, however, organized ceremonies are not as common as they used to be. One reason is that younger Americans are less active in religious or fraternal organizations, which for past generations traditionally served as sources of organized ceremonial activities.

Religious ceremonies, such as bar mitzvahs, first communions, and rites of confirmation, helped many young boys realize the dynamics of this transition and adjust to it, says Dr. Judith Erickson, research director emeritus of the Indiana Youth Institute and a nationally known sociologist.

Later in life, she adds, membership in fraternal or service organizations—and the ceremonies that went with it—reinforced many men's sense of identity as "gentlemen of integrity."

"There are many fewer places today where children are exposed to ceremonies and rituals," says Erickson, who has worked extensively with the BSA and who helped design the Ethics in Action program for Cub Scouts. "The right kind of ceremony can give boys—and girls, too—a better self-identity and a better sense of how they fit into a group.

"Unfortunately," she adds, "the only truly universal rite of passage we have left for young people in this country seems to be getting your driver's license."

Society's changing attitudes have contributed to a decreasing appreciation for ceremony and ritual. For example, an emphasis on individual freedom, argues noted family therapist Michael Gurian, has led many Americans to frown on certain institutional rites of passage.

In his book, The Wonder of Boys (Tarcher/Putnam), Gurian notes that such rites are essential parts of every boy's life.

"If no institutional rites of passage occur in his life," Gurian writes, "he grows up alienated from the institutions that run society." [For more of Michael Gurian's views, see the article "How Society Fails Boys (And What We Can Do About It)," in Scouting's May-June 1999 issue.—Ed.]

The diminished presence of rituals also can be attributed to the fact that many ceremonies embody elements of fantasy and spiritualism. These may seem foreign or even silly to much of the increasingly hurried, hard-nosed, technology-driven, show-me-the-bottom-line society of today.

Scouting's key role

An Eagle Scout ceremony is one of Scouting's most impressive moments.

For many families today, Scouting may be the only source of significant ceremonial experiences. However, prevailing attitudes have even led some Scout units to downplay the role of ceremonies, or at least not devote as much emphasis and preparation to them, observes Bruce Walcutt, chairman of the BSA's National Boy Scout Camping Committee.

"There's a tendency in some troops just to go through the motions in a cut-and-dried way, and that causes ceremonies to lose much of their drama and emotional appeal," Walcutt says. "In other cases, I think this happens because volunteer leaders are unfamiliar with the ceremonies and may be afraid they won't do them right.

"At the same time," he points out, "there are still lots of good ceremonies going on in troops where they take the trouble to learn their parts, use the right props, and create the proper atmosphere."

According to Dr. Erickson, the impact of Scouting's tradition of ceremony can best be seen among Eagle Scouts. It is no accident, she says, that Eagle Scouts, who have gone through years of ritual and challenge to reach Scouting's highest rank, stand out as "one of the best examples anywhere" of the positive influences of good ceremonies on young people.

"Eagle Scouts are the envy of other youth organizations because they enjoy such exemplary status, and ceremonies recognizing their achievements help perpetuate important cultural traditions and values."

"Throughout the BSA, we're very strong on ceremonies," says E. R. (Tommy) Thomas, associate national director of the Cub Scout Division. "We look at them as a vital part of life. In Scouting, they convey the message that 'This is what we're doing, and you—the individual boy—are a key part of it.'"

Thomas cites four major benefits of Scouting ceremonies:

Purpose and occasion

Ceremonies should also be well-planned and appropriate to the intended purpose and occasion.

"The wrong kind of ceremony can be confusing or even damaging to a child," Dr. Erickson says. "One of the worst examples I can remember had a bunch of leaders dressed up in hokey Indian costumes doing some kind of a dance in front of a group of Cub Scouts and finishing up by singing 'Amazing Grace.'"

It is inappropriate, she explains, to mix other kinds of religious symbols or hymns into a ceremony built around Native American culture and beliefs.

"I'd urge Scouters who want to do authentic Indian ceremonies to go to the elders of an Indian group in their area and get some guidance."

Cubmaster Michele Highley's group has followed this advice. A serious student of Native American traditions, she used great care in adding cultural elements to the Arrow of Light and crossover ceremonies that were performed in her pack.

"Authenticity is my thing," she says. "When the older Boy Scout who serves as chief during the ceremony calls together the Council of the Four Winds, other older Scouts in authentic Indian dress walk out of the darkness from the four points of the compass, then light their torches as they approach the council fire.

"This makes for an eerie, highly visible ceremony that leaves a deep impression on all our Cub Scouts."

The participating "Indians" rehearse their parts so extensively that none has to read from a script, Highley says, and they go to great lengths to accurately portray their costuming and appearance.

As part of their crossover to Boy Scouts, each advancing Webelos Scout in Highley's pack receives his own hand-painted arrow and an attractive wooden plaque on which to display all the badges and medals he earned as a Cub Scout.

Lasting impressions

Regardless of the occasion, Scout leaders agree that ceremonies that combine creativity with tradition and physical achievement with psychological impact usually leave the most lasting impressions on the boys involved.

"These are the special things about Scouting that ... [youth] sports programs don't offer," says Kay Bolle, Scoutmaster of Troop 482 in Festus, Mo.

"When boys learn pages of script, create their own costumes, and pick their own sites for an Order of the Arrow ceremony, it's something they can be really proud of. Each time it happens, they stand a little taller and a little straighter."

To have this type of impact, a ceremony must remind participants of the great values of love, acceptance, personal growth, and togetherness that they can attain from the best moments of Scouting. They must involve participating Scouts on an emotional or even spiritual level, not merely a physical one.

And accomplishing this doesn't always require a scripted, formal occasion, or even a moment labeled as ceremonial. Sometimes, as Dr. Erickson points out, even the simplest of settings and situations can result in a ceremonial experience.

"Nature can be awesome when you're out there in it," she says, "and in that setting, just sitting around a campfire and singing familiar songs can be a priceless, shared experience. I've talked to many adults who treasure those simple rituals as some of the best times of their childhood."

Bruce Walcutt readily admits to being one of those people. The lasting impressions left by long-ago campfires, he says, are a main reason he wants boys across the country to be able to share them today.

"To me, the simple ritual of sitting in a circle of firelight, staring into the flames and listening to a storyteller pass along outdoor tales and traditions, ranks right at the top of the most important ceremonies in Scouting," he says.

Although Order of the Arrow and Eagle Scout ceremonies are among Scouting's most impressive, many boys do not remain active long enough to experience them, he adds.

"The campfire ritual is available to virtually all Scouts, which is why I think it's so important. It creates a feeling of closeness to nature and each other, and it's an absolutely mesmerizing, unforgettable experience for both kids and adults."

And that, in a nutshell, is exactly what every good Scouting ceremony is all about.

Contributing Editor Bill Sloan lives in Dallas, Tex.

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