“Passing it On” Memoirs of Girls Nation 2014

This blog has been a long time coming. I have tried to summarize the opportunity without losing the significance of everything I valued about my time in Washington D.C. Images, beliefs and memories drift forward. My mind catches hold of one and seizes another. The speed of the mind reaching out to dwell momentarily on a past occurrence brings with it the joys, the hardships, the laughs and hopes.

Ten minutes pass. I type a paragraph, delete several others, and life continues. A year and a half later this blog is up to 25 revisions and I don’t regret waiting this long to share my story with the world. After many months of writing, I came to the conclusion that people can not live on remembrances of the past, but the remembrances of the past can enrich the future. Those past events alter the way of thinking, living, and aspiring. Girls Nation inspired me.


June 2014 A Door Opens

“We are ready for you, Kathryn.” Getting up from my committee meeting I stacked my papers, left my seat, and allowed the door to swing shut behind me. It clicked shut behind me. With every door that closes another one opens.

Escorted through the quiet maze of walls and doors, climates and rooms, I stopped and waited in a building nearby.

“Have a seat. We will be with you shortly.”

I sat in front of the door to be opened and pressed my skirt with my hands unfurling the wrinkles hidden in the patterns. Without much thought, I twisted my Girls State polo and adjusted the collar. I leaned back. I was ready.

Moments later I was ushered into the room and asked to sit down at a table with three american legion auxiliary women.

What happened in that room, the questions asked, the responses given I hardly remember. All I know is this. That evening, they called my name to represent Vermont at Girls Nation. A door opened, and I walked through.

Reflection: Looking back, I realize how unlikely a candidate I was. Why me? I see now the series of events over the week that led to my nomination to Girls Nation. One year later I still do not know for sure why everything happened the way it did, but I do not seek an answer. Providence does not always show itself, and its not for me to try to pry open the secrets of its ways.

Though today, I look back and see how the ways of providence led me a long a gentle and lovely path and those event happened as follows.

Only two days before Girls Nation, I met my staff leader at a friend’s graduation party. I had never met her before. She approached me hearing that I was going to Girls State. She encouraged me to run for Girls Nation. Girls Nation? What was that? Before the night was over I had made up my mind. I was running for Girls Nation and, I was running for governor to get there.

I suppose using a governorship position as a means to and end was the wrong reason to run. In the real world shouldn’t someone only run for a position to commit their abilities to that one occupation. I know now that position does not necessarily imply promotion. If the truth of the story must be told, I ran for governor, and I lost. I tried for another position. I ran and lost. Again, I tried. Again I lost. But when that shocking moment came and I stood before the assembled congress of Girls State with my name running and “Girls Nation” running in my head every failure seemed to vanish as the hands clasped me, and the cheers lifted me on a wave of ecstasy.

But why me? I ask the question again not seeking the secrets of the future but of understanding the past. I saw then. They were not the prior successes that made me a success (what success was that?), nor were they the recent failures that made me a failure. Persistence goes a long way. Providence has its place. And the courage to try and fail is a success of itself.

This adventure I accepted wholeheartedly, but weeks later I found out I could have taken I much different path. Slight disappointment nagged within. I comforted myself in this; Doors don’t just open and close on their own. Where I was and where I was going, It was meant to be.

Surrounded by the 2014 Girls State choir, I tried to choke out the words to our state song. I stopped trying and let the tears run down my face, my hand on my heart. I could not sing the words of the Vermont State Song. The words carried me away to “[the] green hills and silver mountains.” They are my home. They belong to me.” It was meant to be. I was headed for D.C!

I looked up at the end of the formal procession of events to the audience. Family members had come to support their daughters and sisters who had won elected positions. I saw my parents on the edge of the balcony and was stunned. They had come. I hesitated for just a moment to compose myself, but as my hastening steps drew me nearer to those steps, a fresh torrent of happiness choked me as I was embraced by them.


The Girls in blue Headbands

The plane rumbled beneath me. I adjusted my blue headband given to me. “It is your identification when you reach the airport,” the girls state american legion woman told me. My 17 years of waiting and any second the wheels of the plane would leave the ground. I felt the sensation of tipping backwards as the nose lifted skyward. It was better than a roller coaster or anything I had felt in an amusement park, the power, the purpose, and the destination of the plane.

A man next to me made pleasant conversation. I soon learned he traveled from New Mexico, and if my memory recalls correctly his name was Max. So I shall call him that. Max inquired about my trip and my co-senator and I told him we were headed to D.C. to create a mock government with other senators from around the country. There were 98 of us total. He asked what we would run for. My failure as governor did not intimidate me. I would run for president. He genuinely asked if the public could vote. I told him I didn’t think it worked that way. He teased, “Well if we could, you’d have my vote. You ladies could probably get a lot more accomplished than the current government now!”

Upon landing I said good-bye pleased with the people and conversations already. He reminded me, “I’ll vote! Just tell me where to sign.”

I followed my co-senator, an experienced traveler to the baggage claim. I looked for my Girls Nation sticker red as cherries and large as a piece of construction paper with importance stamped all over it. I waited and waited and began counting the many rungs upon which the bags were placed. I counted many panels…to many to keep track of, and grabbed my bag as it rounded the corner ready to find my family for the week.

I saw the identification on many girls around me, blue bandannas. Some girls tied them around their head as a headband, others tied them to their purses. Some held them in their hands . When a senator from one state saw a senator from another one would lift a hand and flag the other down giving a big hug as if they had known each other forever. The mob of girls with blue headbands grew so we soon occupied every airport seat. The American Legion Auxiliary women came around and greeted us with food and fruit. One of the women offered me cookies. I think they were surprised when I turned down the oreos. I had heard that in the South they fry everything including oreos. I never found out if this was true.

Our bus arrived of course the time I went to the bathroom. I returned and stepped out the airport doors to be flagged down by one of those mothers in blue as I started walking the wrong direction. I sat next to her on the bus and used her phone to call home telling so soon.

At the 4-H building the first group of travelers greeted us. Many of them traveled from Alaska, California, Oregon, Texas, Ohio, and Arizona. They sported red polos and had red eyes from waking at 2 a.m. I sensed a color theme in the shirts, red, blue… I looked for the color white to complete our Patriotic color patterns. I made my rounds in that large room stopping by the nurse, receiving my packet, modeling for my identity picture, and signing up for choir. I smiled inside as I looped the ‘e’ on the end of Bassette. I wouldn’t cry again.

July 2015 My Name Is Senator Bassette

Dear Senator Bassette,

That is how my letter began from National headquarters, and that is how I was addressed for nine days of learning. I sat beside 97 other girls dressed in polo shirts. The president of Girls Nation spoke to us.

Dear American Legion Auxiliary Girls Nation Senator(s),

Congratulations on being selected a 2014 ALA Girls Nation senator! This is a great honor that has been bestowed upon you because of your accomplishments in school, your community and at your local ALA Girls State. I hope that you celebrate and treasure this opportunity. While attending Girls Nation, you were not only representing your state, but also your community and your local American Legion Auxiliary. This is a great honor, but also a great responsibility. It is an opportunity of a lifetime — remember your experiences and make the most of them.

The ALA Girls Nation program develops tomorrow’s leaders in a fast-paced and rigorous educational environment. Past Girls State/Nation participants have gone on to be Secretary of Homeland Security, state governors, the first woman to serve as Wing Commander for the U.S. Air Force, network broadcast journalists, lawyers and Miss America. This is your chance to start down that road, too. This privilege only comes to a few and it will never come your way again, so I encourage you to embrace this opportunity and continue to learn and grow.

At ALA Girls Nation you were introduced to my presidential theme, “Pass It On.” I ask that you take the lessons you learned at Girls Nation back to your communities. Your week at Girls Nation has changed the course of your life; it will open doors for scholarships and entrance to our military academies and colleges across the country. What you choose to make of this week is entirely up to you. I encourage you to pass on your knowledge, pass on your patriotism and pass on your enthusiasm and, above all, to make a difference! You have made memories and friendships that will last a lifetime. Always remember to take the time to listen to both sides of an issue, embrace your fellow citizens and have fun!

Finally, as the national president of the world’s largest women’s patriotic service organization, I want to encourage you to remember that you were able to participate in this premier event because of the sacrifice of veterans. Please “Pass It On” so that these sacrifices are not in vain.

Congratulations. May you continue to receive many blessings.
For God and Country,

Nancy Brown-Park

National President, American Legion Auxiliary

In the Spirit of Service Not Self for Veterans, God and Country

The week began. I faced challenges but so did the other girls. I stretched my mental capacity, but so did they. There were times I felt uncomfortable standing in front of our legislature and I was pretty sure none of the others did. I often asked myself who am I to stand beside such talented women who have pages and pages of accomplishments, with years of debate experience, and who have a perfect understanding of parliamentary procedure? Nevertheless we bonded under the banner of Girls Nation and were tied in the spirit of knowing one day we would “Pass it On.”

I soon realized that choir was not what I thought It was going to be. A cell phone was inadequate for starting all of us on the right note and many times debates ensued about who was singing the correct note. Despite the struggles of rehearsal, we came together and at an honor ceremony for the veterans, we sang beautifully when it counted most.

Girls Nation strove to develop our understanding of patriotism. The story of the poppies impressed me, and I wore my felted poppy proudly in remembrance of the soldiers. Many never returned home. Some were buried out at sea. Others returned with severe PTSD. Often they would return home to end up on the streets. Several were unidentifiable from the horrific mutilation of war. These lay under row upon row of white headstones. Our butterfly ceremony ended and we were dismissed to disperse and lay the poppy given to us on a stone of our choice.  I ambled to the most deserted, lonely corner of the field and stooped before one covered in moss. It was a small tombstone probably ignored by the passerby and forgotten by the world but nevertheless a soul with a story, a family, and remembered by loved ones. Several numbers and letters were etched into the rock. I disturbed the moss with my finger to read the words. There were no words only an indecipherable collection of letters and numbers. I jotted them down hoping one day I would find out some information about whose headstone I had kissed with my red poppy.  I left the place otherwise undisturbed.

The White House

We lined up alphabetically in rows along the gates. The white building peaked through gardens, security vehicles, and more gates. It was hardly a house. Girls Nation and boys Nation mingled in rows while waiting for the appointed time. Since our nomination to attend Nation we had wondered if it would be true. Were we really going to shake the presidents hand? All 200 of us men and women? Before our departure from the 4-H center to the white house, there was rumor that the president would not be able to meet us. We joked about what we would do if he didn’t show. We received the talk on white house protocol and the security process.

Soon the line of girls in red polos began streaming towards the security gate. It wasn’t the first time I thanked God that my last name began with a ‘B.’  I was fourth in line. I showed my identification and continued forward through the maze of security devices over planks, under gates, around hedges but always on the roped off path. Finally, we came to the last hurdle. I was called up to a rug and asked to stand on the yellow foot marks. A fan blew from behind me and several dogs, although I couldn’t see them, caught my scent. I was told if they barked they would have to thoroughly investigate me. I hardly breathed. They made no sound and I was ushered into the white house with a stream of girls ahead and a torrent of girls behind.

I don’t remember if I actually had to use the restroom, but i do remember that from the giggling and quiet high pitched whispers of the girls I wanted to. I pushed open the door and stood there not wanting to step forward. That bathroom was a thing of beauty and if all bathrooms were like that I would move in. Marble doors weighing hundreds of pounds each were secured onto marble stalls. A chandelier hung from the ceiling. It was small but full of light and everything sparkled from toilet handles to faucet taps. A comfortable bench was nestled under the window . We were told not to bring cameras or phones but I didn’t need one to remember that room of beauty. Never in my life have the facilities refreshed me so much. I washed my hands ever so slowly staring into the grand mirror while staff clapped their hands at us to hurry up. Girls did what girls do. They giggled and whispered in awe of everything, and for the moment all thought of the president was gone.

We were ushered into an upstairs room where they offered water in little crystal glasses. A pile of napkins completed the presentation. I poured myself some perfectly crisp water, not to cold not too warm, and dabbed my lips with the napkin. It had a gold seal imprinted on the otherwise normal paper napkin. A small guilty smile spread over my face, and I tucked the napkin into my lanyard. This was it, my souvenir from the white house.

The upstairs room spread forever and was separated by only a few walls which had no doors. A round room with a green rug and many paintings. A square room 100 yards wide. Two mirrors as big as a movie screen reflected each other. A chandelier as big as the largest kitchen table. These were the sights that met my eyes. But the most irresistible object was the piano. It was tortuous being so close and not being allowed to touch it. A story was painted into its wood and an eagle’s face made up each leg of that grand thing. Never before had I longed to let my fingers touch ivory so badly. The thought still torments me. What did it sound like? So many beautiful things in that house and did anyone use them? Shouldn’t the beautiful be used to please the aesthetic longing in our souls and ultimately bring glory to God? The real question is probably was it used? Maybe, but probably for only truly spectacular performers. Someday I would have a piano as beautiful as this, or so I hoped.

Organizing us was excruciatingly time consuming. Boys and girls again lined up though this time by height. I spoke with all the short guys and felt rather sorry for them. Several were only an inch or two taller than me and I am 5’2.” Iwe conversed, but it didn’t last long because there was a sense of urgency to line up on the stands and be ready when the President came. So much planning for only ten minutes with the most powerful man on earth. I have never cursed being short though I often ask God “to bless my shortness.” Biblically, God often uses the weak and short people, seemingly improbable characters, to do impossible things. In my opinion it shows more of God’s greatness and power. Zachias was one such figure. That day I would not have traded an inch of my height.

We waited our President and Vice president sitting center stage in front of several rows of girls. I stood behind them. We waited. Someone began singing, and the patriotic songs began. The acoustics in that room echoed down the hall. I slightly envied Boys nation. They stood at the end of the long hall through which president Obama would pass. They could watch him stride forward. And then it happened.

In a moment of silence, we heard a door click and enviously watched as the guys fidgeted. He was coming, and the slow, pacing steps drew near from a long way off. “Hello, hello!” It’s him I breathed. His voice was warm and caused the hairs on my skin to stand straight up. I was told that one could feel a sort of electricity when he was present and only then did I understand what those people meant. The shifting bodies around me strained for a sight of him. I thought several girls were going to pass out. Everyone was holding their breath waiting, waiting, waiting for the owner of those echoing paces to show himself.

The steps drew nearer, and he stepped from behind the curved wall. He stopped at the edge of the doorway, opened his arms and boomed, “how is everybody?” I was overwhelmed by his warm personality. I heard the sniffles begin several rows behind me and sympathized that makeup would be streaming down their faces in several moments, yet I understood the overwhelming emotions that they felt.

President Obama made headed for the American Legion Auxiliary and Legion presidents first shaking our very own Nancy Brown-Parker’s hand and the Boys Nation president. He walked over to several of the staff women seated and kissed one on the cheek. She seemed to rise up out of her chair with a youthfulness I have only seen when I watched someone give an eight year old a beautiful porcelain doll. She tittled, “he kissed me!” and everyone laughed.

Walking over to the group of Boys the photographer placed the President between the Pres and VP. We waited or turn. Three clicks we were told, and that was all, so don’t stop smiling.

He turned towards us and the shifting bodies moved en mass. Standing center I stared into his face amazed. That’s him. The most powerful man on earth. Those girls most center flung their hands out towards him groping for just a touch of his hand. He took each pleasantly and sat center stage.

Our ten minutes with the president ended with song. He wanted to hear us sing and sing we did with all the vocal talents we had to offer. When he left, the mix of blue and red polos blended again and we found our coach buses which would take us home again. We wouldn’t see the other group of nation members again, but that was just the beginning of friendships via social media. We boarded, and I sat by myself this time to try and wrap my head around what had just happened, the overwhelming beauty, the warm hand, the guards and history of that white place. It was all too much to be true. Would any of it be true without our soldiers? I found myself again on the theme of patriotism and what it means. I missed my family despite the amazing opportunities I was having. I thought of my brothers at their military posts, a couple at West Point, others going through special military schools, my friends from the United States Military Academy and others who had found a career serving. Would any of this be possible without them? Or if it was possible, what made my opportunities so meaningful? I leaned my head against the window closing my eyes. I was exhausted physically and emotionally.  I thought no more drifting off to sleep. My eyes welcomed the covers which tucked them in under the sparkle and glisten of my eyelid.

Final Memoirs

The red poppy continued to create a theme throughout the week. As we debated, studied government, and ran for office the red poppy was always in the back of my mind. One night, the night before we packed and headed for home, the girls were led to a small garden outside the 4-H building. We gathered in a warm circle and listened as the women walked around with a little bag of something. In it were seeds, poppy seeds. Such a small thing, but as is the nature of the poppy flower, it is resilient. From it such a world of beauty would spring. A delightful home to an insect, a pleasant composition, and a reminder of all things fought for. I walked to the small plot raked brown and light. I doubted my ability to garden but put my finger into the dirt in the same way I had cleared the moss from that tomb and dropped my seed into the earth. It was buried until autumn came. I have not been back. I don’t know if I will go back. But I believe, nourished by the respect and appreciation in my heart, my poppy from the tombstone was reborn and made alive. It was for the lost soldier, but even more for the ones in my life.

Trish Ward an Auxiliary member and the chairwoman of girls nation handed me a packet. Go home and plant them so you don’t ever forget…to pass it on. She passed it on to me.

On my flight home, I sat between a man and a woman. I like to think that if it wern’e for me they probably otherwise would not have talked, because one question led to another. They were both military. One was a colonel. The other was a mother of a soldier and because of the interesting conversation, our short two hour flight from Washington to Manchester passed much to quickly for me. We departed from each other, but I think of that moment as the culminating point in my trip.

“Home,” as Julie Andrews spoke of, became more meaningful for me after so many days of female energy. I longed to be surrounded by brothers, to throw the bag of make-up in the closet, to take off the heels, and bury them under the bed. I longed for the dirt of Vermont and my Father who’s birthday had passed over my time away. It is funny how longing for adventure creates such mixed feelings once you get that wish. My mother met me at the end of the terminal. “Home.” I smelled it on her. It was the smell of hot bread.

I have many memories of which I didn’t speak about. There was the time I listened to Nessie Godin, a holocaust survivor, tell her story of injustice and wrong of torture and inhumanity and the grace with which she extended forgiveness. (Later that summer I became educated in things of economics under a now good friend Ben Voth who knew Nessie Godin personally.) But the story unfolded more deeply and more meaningfully when I walked through the floors of the Holocaust museum. It was an open book with an unclear beginning and a tragic end but Nessie told the conclusion which included forgiveness and grace. I looked at the pamphlet given to me at the door. It was the biography of a Jew who had been imprisoned, murdered, and affected by the horrendous event. There were thousands, no, millions of people whose biographies filled those little books. I read the name of my person and the short biography. I gasped. I found a bench and sat down quickly. There, on the page, was a young faced pretty child around ten years old from Lithuania. Her name was Nessie. Though her last name was different, it was Nessie Godin almost eighty years ago.

Memories like these will forever influence my writings, my interactions, my thinking, and my actions.

It wasn’t until many months later that I went outside with a little packet in my hands. I went over to my backyard hillside among the wildflowers and envisioned a future portrait. Yes, this would do nicely. On my hands and knees I turned up the dirt, tore open the packet and spread the little seeds in the dirt. I watered them, my fingers not knowing exactly how to care for the little things. I felt like a mother for the first time learning how to care for a baby perhaps unnaturally but giving all the care and affection that a little thing deserves. I left the spot and let nature do the rest.

I was sitting at the kitchen table when it happened. My mother sitting at the computer looked up and gasped, “what is that lovely little thing outside the window?”

One small poppy blew in the wind among the black-eyed-susans and wildflowers. Its simple beauty far surpassed the complex garden flowers though beautiful on their own, but the red poppy was so much more. It was the message that this little thing waved to the world. She represented freedom and the red blood spilled for that freedom. She reminded me of the forgotten soldier, of the rows and rows of tomb stones, of the memorials I visited, and of the never-ending wall of names. She reminded me of the blood spilled on a cross for me, for my freedom to love and serve. My one poppy reminded me of my brothers who would see war, who had seen war, and who suffered the events horrendous and grotesque to protect me. Those mental wounds only God could heal. The poppy was a message of sacrifice and love.

I did not go near the flower until weeks later. I don’t know why. But by the time I found myself kneeling on the hill, the red petals lay on the ground. The head was bare and exposed. That little mother, which I prayed would produce a field of poppies, would not be clothed again until spring. She was like Monet’s wife and her little girl simply dressed in a garden of enormous, red poppies. I noticed something in the dirt and again was taken aback. There were little egg shells surrounding the flower. Someone had nourished my poppy when I didn’t know how to care for her. I could tell by the rich composted earth. I wasn’t sure if the flower would have survived without that person but I knew who had come and I smiled.

I still do not know why I was chosen to attend Girls Nation. I do not know many things, but I am deeply aware of my gratitude for the gift. If all life is a pure gift then I will live life gratefully. Sometimes it takes years to acknowledge the enormity of certain gifts. I would say this blog is not late, it has just taken a year and a half to put to words the enormity of the gift of Girls Nation and to accurately, “pass it on.”

 

 

 

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