When I was 13 years old my mom found out about a program that taught homeschooled students about government called TeenPact. My mom has always been very politically active - she used to pull my brother and me around in our little red wagon while she would pound campaign posters into lawns around town. My tendency is to be politically apathetic. I've never really cared that much, and my cynicism when it comes to civic action tells me that my single vote won't do much good anyways. But at the age of 13 my political cynicism was not yet highly developed. So my mom signed me up for TeenPact and told some of our homeschool group friends about it as well, and I agreed to go - it seemed like it wouldn't be that bad, and plus my friends Rose and Andy were going to go as well.
TeenPact calls itself a "leadership school." It's a four-day intensive program focused on teaching teenagers from 13-19 about the way their local governments work. It's open to anyone, but since it's in the middle of the school year it's very rare that anyone but homeschoolers go. TeenPact travels from state to state, hosting classes in each state capitol building. The students hold mock legislatures, hear from guest lecturers who are often very high up in their state governments, and even get to meet their legislators. They learn about lobbying, the constitution, how a bill becomes a law, and the importance of civic action. All this sounded like not much fun to my 13-year-old self, but I figured it wouldn't be that bad, Rose and Andy would be there, and we might meet some nice kids. Then I found out about the dress code.
TeenPact's dress code was rigid. Boys: preferably a suit, at least a long-sleeved button up shirt and a tie, NO shorts, NO sneakers. Absolute professionalism. Alright, I thought, they want us to look nice, I understand that. It's important to present ourselves well. But the instructions for the girls were far more elaborate: girls may not wear pants, even professional pant suits. Skirts must be mid-calf length and must not show the knees when the girl is sitting. No sneakers, no sandals. Shirts must have sleeves - cap sleeves do not count as sleeves. The neckline must come no more than two finger-widths below the collar-bone. Shirts must not be form-fitting - you should be able to pinch the sides of your shirt and pull it away from your body without it pulling tight across your chest. Jewelry should not be attention-drawing. Then there were the more general instructions to both sexes: no piercings anywhere but the ears. No strange haircuts. No strange hair colors.
I had a little bit of a fit when I found out about these rules. At 13, I was struggling to know how to dress my strange new body in everyday life, let alone with this list of regulations to take into account. How was I going to avoid looking like a total dork in a mid-calf-length skirt? My mom encouraged me - these rules were strict, she said, but they just want everyone to look professional. We'll find you some clothes that you'll look alright in.
Well, we didn't. I remember my first year at TeenPact as an awkward time of trying to fit in with the older kids (Rose was 16 and had miraculously found clothes that looked cute and stylish even while meeting the dress code), wearing the same uncomfortable polyester-blend long black skirt every day (it was the only one we could find that was dress-code-proof) and being unsure of what I actually thought about anything.
So that was my first year at TeenPact. I didn't hate it, but I didn't like it much either. That might have been the end of it, if it hadn't been for Rose.
Rose loved TeenPact. She was old enough to make friends easily, and it didn't hurt her that she has always had a personality that's at home with almost anyone and is one of the most strikingly beautiful people I've ever met. She loved TeenPact so much that she went to the TeenPact National Convention in Georgia that summer, and came home galvanized. Her mom became the state coordinator for our state and her excitement infected me a little. Maybe there was more to TeenPact than I had realized.
Year 2 of TeenPact was totally different. I was a year older and had more practice with what clothes worked for my body. I looked long and hard for pieces that would meet the dress code but still be cute. I did better than the year before, and at TeenPact Round Two I actually made friends. I got more excited about political activism - they taught us that we, individual people, and teenagers no less, could really make a difference in our state governments! This was empowering talk. That summer I went to the National Convention too, and by TeenPact Year 3 I was totally on board.
So what's the matter with this picture? TeenPact sounds great. It teaches kids about civic action, provides a place for homeschoolers to get to know other young people (the coveted "socializing") and gives opportunities for travel and political involvement. What's wrong with that?
Well, not really anything, or at least, not anything really sinister. The best parts about TeenPact were wonderful, and the worst parts were mostly unintentional or accidental. But the worst parts were important, and starting at 13, they began to shape my view of myself and others. TeenPact officially endorses no candidates, but if it's an impartial organization, well, I'm a wildebeest. We learned which candidates were Godly and which weren't - which were trying to save our Christian nation from the hands of the wicked liberals and which were in cahoots with those very liberals themselves. TeenPact unofficially hosted Student Projects where TeenPacters from all over would fly in and go door-to-door for a certain candidate, holding signs on street corners, addressing and stuffing envelopes and phoning all the registered Republicans to remind them to get out and vote come voting day. It was an entirely conservative organization - at National Conventions we listened to guest speakers and sometimes even the founder himself tell us how we could save our nation from the evils of gay marriage, liberal higher education and taking God out of public life. We were going to take this country back for God from the ground up, one teenager at a time! It was a heavy responsibility, and a glorious one. We stood out from the ranks of wickedness all around us, shining the light for Christ and a Christian America. I took up the cause wholeheartedly.
I loved TeenPact. I had more friends than I had ever had before - true, dear friends who cared about each other passionately. I had a purpose and a calling - TeenPact was at times a truly empowering organization. "Let no one look down on you because you are young," TeenPact had us recite, "but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity." I felt like God really wanted me and needed me to further His kingdom. At the same time, I was becoming more and more firmly convinced that gay people and liberals were definitely trying to destroy everything Godly about America, that America needed specifically Christian laws in order for God's hand to remain upon us, that 9/11 may have been God's punishment for taking His Laws out of our schools and courthouses, and that there was a rising tide of young people in this country who were spurining true manhood and womanhood. It wasn't until much later that I reflected on many of the things TeenPact taught me about myself and specifically myself as a woman. Those things will be the subject of my next post.