Atholton High School's Miles Walker recently captured the state's top prize in an American Legion national government instruction program, an accomplishment that for the 16-year-old rising senior was nearly a lifetime in the making.
The Columbia resident was an infant when his mother, Lisa Walker Woodyard, first read about the Boys State program in the memoir of President Bill Clinton, who attended as a 16-year-old himself.
The regimented instruction program was launched by the American Legion in 1935 to counter the Soviet Union's Young Pioneer camps and according to the American Legion strives to teach civic duty via role playing as state and local politicians.
Woodyard figured she would introduce her son to the program at the opportune time, which came this year — well after he had already shown an interest in politics.
Walker was recently selected as one of two Boys State participants to represent Maryland at Boys Nation, the program's national conference, being held July 18-26 in the Washington area.
Walker was elected by his peers from nearly 200 teens who took part in the program in June at McDaniel College. The other state representative is Jeremy Price of Carroll County.
Walker said he first attended a meeting about Boys State at the encouragement of his mother — though his first impression was that the program had all the trappings of a boot camp.
Boys State, he discovered, was a hands-on exercise in how government works; students take the roles of politicians and take part in activities such as writing legislation, testifying in support of bills and running for office.
"It starts off like boot camp, but that's the whole concept of it," said Walker. "They want to strip you of the stuff you have so you can build those relationships, build camaraderie with people in your city and people in your state so you can actually learn.
"You start off there under a strict dictatorship. You drop off your stuff, you have to march, you're getting yelled at," he said. "Everything you do is strict and to a schedule for the first couple of days. And the only way to get rid of this dictatorship is to basically to overthrow [the leaders] and form your own government."
Boys State, Walker said, is made up of about 200 students divided into five "cities." Members of the cities conduct elections and then implement their own forms of government.
"Under the dictatorship, we were awakened at 5 o'clock with bullhorns," Walker said, "and the mayor has the decision to change how we wake up."
Each city elects its own officers, from governor to judge to comptroller. Students become members of a General Assembly, lobby for key leadership positions and are divided into committees that make decisions on nearly two dozen bills.
"They were bills that were judged in the real [General Assembly] in Annapolis," Walker said. "And so it was basically a test to see what teenagers would do in regard to decisions that the [Assembly] in real life did."
Miles said he lost the mayoral election but won floor leadership of the General Assembly and was able to experience the legislative process firsthand. That helped him to sharpen his skills en route to being selected by his peers to represent Maryland at Boys Nation.
Similar to Boys State, Boys Nation is an annual weeklong program. Students play the roles of U.S. senators, writing legislation and running for office. They also receive lessons on networking with national lawmakers and are scheduled to meet President Barack Obama, officials said.
Walker said he hopes to meet Obama — but would be equally eager to meet Clinton, whom he regards as an influence.
When Clinton served in Boys Nation, he met — and shook hands with — President John F. Kennedy.
"Politics has always been important to me and interesting to me," said Walker, who plays football and runs track. He said that he hopes to one day work for one of the political leaders he's met at Boys State.
"Hopefully the relationships I made from this experience will carry on into when I'm an adult and will help me then."
Boys State is among many programs offered by the American Legion, an organization that provides support to military veterans and their dependents. There's a similar program for girls, and participants from both programs are eligible for $20,000 scholarships from Samsung. The American Legion will award nine of the scholarships during its fall meetings in October.
Walker's success in the program comes as no surprise to those at his school.
"Miles has a certain poise," said Yvonne Gordon, a counselor at Atholton. "He's very respectful when he talks to you. I see him as being a great candidate for this program because of his natural characteristics."
Woodyard, who is CEO and general counsel for the Washington-based Housing and Development Law Institute, said that when she introduced her son to Boys State, she told him, "This is a great program. You have an interest in politics. This would be a good way for you to learn how local government works."
"I didn't realize at that point that they would teach them all three levels of government," said Woodyard, who gets teary-eyed when recalling hearing her son won the top prize.
"He actually learned more about politics and government than I know."