The theater in McDaniel College's Alumni Hall was filled with more than 200 teenage boys in white shirts emblazoned with the Maryland flag on Thursday afternoon. Overhead, just beneath the gallery seats, hung a banner that read "Maryland Boys State. Zero percent unemployment. 100 percent voter turnout."
On the stage, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot addressed the young men, praising them for their involvement in a structured program and offering advice on taking responsibility for their personal finances.
"Many people your age are adrift because they have no discipline," he said, adding later that "financial literacy is the key to happiness … otherwise you have no independence."
This was the Boys State program of the American Legion, which since 1935 — since 1947 in Maryland — has given teens across the country an opportunity at hands-on learning in American politics and public service. Teens from all over the state in transition from their junior to senior years of high school had arrived on Sunday and spent the week in debating, holding elections for mock city, county and state elections, and even participating in some military style marching.
"The purpose of Boys State is to give them instructions on government, how democracy works, and the ins and outs of our political process," said J.D. Larson, past commander of the American Legion in Maryland. "In the long run, we teach them how to work in a team."
The military flavor of the discipline that Franchot was keen to praise is not as intense as it might first appear, according to Larson, and is born more out of necessity than a desire to instill a military air for its own sake.
"We do have them march because marching in a group is the easiest way to get from point A to point B. Sometimes with these young men it's like herding chickens," he said. "In the barracks we make them make their bed, we make them put their clothes in a certain way. We make them shower every day. A little discipline young men could use."
Franchot told the boys gathered about his own brush with discipline, being drafted into the U.S. Army for two years, an experience he really only came to appreciate in retrospect.
"Boys State is giving that without having to go into the military service. They are getting, from the American Legion, some structure in their lives and that's invaluable," Franchot said in an interview after his talk. "Some of the kids will take advantage of it, some of them won't, but we do a disservice to our kids when we don't give them a taste of what it's like to be serious and in control of their lives."
In his talk with the teens, Franchot mentioned that he would like to see military service as a prerequisite for political office, but he expanded and clarified that point in the interview, noting that public service is something everyone should participate in at some point in their young adult lives.
"I think it would be best if they had it before they went to college because then they would get a little bit of direction from that. It doesn't necessarily have to be military training, but to do something for their country," Franchot said. "I would like to see more military people in politics, I would like to, but I think a good compromise would be let's require public service as a prerequisite for getting into politics."
That's a proposal Boys State participant David Polfrone, of Ellicott City, can get behind. An avid debater — he learned about the Boys State program from someone who had participated while at a speech and debate camp at George Mason University — and a senatorial candidate in the Boys State mock elections, David said he would like to serve, but not in the military.
"I am planning on going into an MD/Ph.D. program in college. I would like to have a Ph.D. in immunology," he said. "I would be honored to work for the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or the [National Institutes of Health] to help with the public health programs."
For Alioune Mbodj — whom everyone at Boys State calls "Ali" — public service is a family tradition: Although he hails from Edgewater, his parents are both stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania, his father with the office of the consulate and his mother with the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.
Ali is spending the summer in Maryland before returning to Africa and said Boys State was recommended as one step on the path to his service ambition, to be admitted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. As of Thursday, he was greatly impressed with Boys State.
"It's a great program. They say that will change your life and I do agree with that. I have only been here for four days and so far I have already met people with different talents, different backgrounds," Ali said. "I see people who are part of the JROTC Corps, you see a lot of people who lead their school in Boy Scouts. You meet a lot of different leaders and so far a lot of things are already changing for me."
It's not uncommon to see a dramatic change in participants in Boys State through the course of the week, according to Larson. When he first became involved about three years ago, he only came up for the first Sunday to help with registration. After he became the commander, and came up to give a speech at the end of the week and see the change for himself.
"The difference between the boys you see on Sunday when they register and on Friday, when I gave that speech, was night and day. The transformation was just incredible," Larson said. "They don't like to leave. They don't like to leave their cities."
In fact, that melancholy anticipation of goodbyes was already present in the mind of Ali on Thursday afternoon, although he was able to find a positive outlook.
"I am kind of sad because I might not be able to see these people again. I hope I do, I am going to make sure I get all of their contacts because I know everybody here is going to end up being big in the future," he said. "What I really look forward to is meeting these people in the future, when they carry on with their respective jobs and their professions."