Scout’s Honor

Lacy Warner

Before I became a woman, I first had to become a Boy Scout.

At age eight, I was dismissed from the Girl Scouts. About to discard my childish coffee colored uniform and receive the clinical green regalia that meant I was a girl on the verge (otherwise known as a “junior”), I was informed that the troop had grown too large. It no longer had room for me.

I knew better than to believe them.


Picture this: same age, plus or minus a year, and a gaggle of teenagers—all siblings, family friends—are watching me and my own siblings while our parents get out for some much-needed relief. It is something of a party at our house. There is pizza and soda and movies, and the sisters are letting me rifle though their purses, the kind with shoulder straps, digging out their Dr. Pepper chap stick and smearing it over my mouth. The viscous goo hangs off my lower lip.

Even better than the girls are two brothers, ages sixteen and seventeen. Boy Scouts, both of them. One is strong and rowdy, horsing around in the living room with my own brother (who for the record is embarrassing himself, his need for attention obvious like a handicap he can’t hide), while the other is studious, hunched over his homework in the kitchen, making neat boxes in black ink to cover his mistakes. Easy prey. I settle myself next to him in the breakfast nook, perch my chin in the palm of my hand, and cross my marshmallow legs behind me. “Whatcha working on?” I ask. No answer. “I got a question,” I say, rubbing the ink on the sides of his stupid boxes with my fingers. “If you’re so smart, then tell me what a virgin is.”

He sucks air in and then doesn’t know what to do with it, his eyes searching for help around the room. But the girls are studying their nails, and the other brother is now consumed by the cartoon flickering in primary colors on the TV. I hear something pop open inside me, like the sound a tennis ball makes when bounced directly into the middle of a racket. I only have a second to push on, to bring the ball over the net. I ask him how are babies made, and what exactly do you do when you French kiss? His face is the color of a bruised tomato, the one that detached itself from the vine.

To his credit, he never comes back to babysit again.

Truth is, the Girl Scouts meant little to me. I thought they were the worst kind of girls. My mother tells me now she thinks I wasn’t so much dismissed from the troop, as simply not invited to return. She says that the troop mothers had also formed a tight knit group and they had decided to teach their daughters that in order to maintain control, someone has to be ostracized. Mom didn’t think I had done anything wrong per se, I just happened to be the unlucky victim. Back then I wasn’t attuned to the social hierarchy of things, I didn’t know about cliques or the mundane ways in which girls will undermine each other for any kind of power. Instead the discharge from the Girls Scouts confirmed my deepest fear, and my most secret form of pride: I operated in a constant state of desire, hungry for something—a something I didn’t understand, though nothing seemed to quell my appetite. I knew I was bad—I knew I wanted sex, or at least some adolescent form of it—despite the fact that girls weren’t supposed to have it. But I felt glutinous for desire. I wanted more.

My mother didn’t think there was any honor in the Girl Scouts, just a lot of hair spray. But my father saw things differently. No daughter of his wouldn’t be in the Scouts. Dad grew up in a culture of Scouting. On his eighteenth birthday, he had achieved one of the highest awards and become an Eagle Scout. Later, he was tapped to join The Order of the Arrow, Scouting’s National Honor Society. Every Thursday night from ages eight until eighteen, my father recited the Scout Oath in different basements: On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country.

Eagle Scouts grow up to be senators, astronauts, soldiers and businessmen. For his part, Dad became a Foreign Service Officer, and took our family with him on tours around the world. Before I turned sixteen, I had already lived in Africa, South America and Europe. Unfortunately, though, Dad was never a very successful diplomat. He retired early.

I always confused my father. I am the child who is the most like him, though I am female. We are both stocky and dark, but with a kind of angularity to our eyebrows that sometimes lends us both a mysterious appeal. At least, it is an appeal I have often hoped for in the darkness of bars. We have the same ability to influence the atmosphere of a room. We can walk in and sway opinion, or suck all the air out, leaving its occupants frustrated and tired. I have seen my father be intimidating and rageful over small things: not getting seated at a restaurant fast enough, or bad traffic—one of his worst triggers. But at his best, as a Scout leader, he was inspiring. I have also witnessed young men clinging to the better part of themselves they discovered for the first time out in the wild. Dad facilitated these transformations. He is a general, not a diplomat. The kind of man you’d want commanding troops in battle. Ironically, this cost him his career.

Like most parents, Dad thought he could mold me into a better version of himself. He set out to make me a child of which he could be proud, a child that had all of his best qualities and none of his worst. He set out to make me a Boy Scout.


When I was ten we moved to Kenya, and that’s where Dad’s pseudo career as a Scout Master really took off. Kenya offers survivalist thrills you can’t get anywhere else, and Dad loved the thrill of taking the boys camping, listening at night for different animals, learning to identify the difference between a hyena and a lion howling at the moon. They went canoeing down the Tana River outside Nairobi, and Dad taught the troop how to hit the water with their paddles to ward off hippos. Though it was against the rules, Dad let everyone into his troop, even non-Americans. There were boys who were Scandinavian, and boys who were from all over Africa. There was also me.

But I was not a tomboy who felt liberated in the woods. I didn’t care about building fires, or learning to tie knots, and I certainly couldn’t join the pissing contests. I had already begun secreting away Mom’s pink Bic razors to shave my legs during my nightly bath routine, which I considered an indulgence, not yet a burden.

I was learning a skill for which there was no merit badge.

That spring I had discovered the lascivious power of long flowing hair. I learned to throw my hair down over my face, brushing it vigorously until it became a fierce storm cloud circling my head. At complete voluminosity, I’d snap my neck back violently, throwing my crowning glory all around me. I did this everywhere I knew there would be an audience: in the locker room, by the tether balls, and always, always wherever there were boys.

I hungered for two specifically: Jonathan and Mathew. Jonathan had blonde hair so light it was almost white. When we were in school plays he had to borrow his mother’s eyeliner to color in his eyebrows so his parents could see him from the audience. His family were Mormon missionaries, though all that meant back then was that he wasn’t allowed to drink soda at birthday parties. Mathew had a cool asymmetrical haircut, and a dangerous older brother who was always getting into trouble at the local disco.

It is the summer I turn eleven. We are camping on the Maasai Mara—the biggest trip of the year. The Mara is a region in Kenya that is globally famous for its population of big game, and there is a running competition among the troop to see who can get a photo of a lion first. I have used my negotiating prowess (I am surrounded by diplomats, after all) to make sure that Jonathan, Mathew and I can ride in the same Jeep when we go out on safari.

In the backseat, the top of each of my naked, shorts-clad thighs presses against the boys: Mathew gets the left one, and Jonathan the right. When I take out my hairbrush they watch me, jaws slack, lips parted and wet. Over and over, I flip my hair. The sour smell of sweat covers us like a warm blanket.

Suddenly Dad’s voice from the front, “Gentlemen,” he barks. “Look sharp, two o’clock.” Ten feet from us are two lions. We scramble over each other to get to the window, clicking away on our Nikons like seasoned paparazzi.

At first I can’t make out what’s happening, it only seems like protuberances of dirty yellow sand and fur, all tangled up, one pulse pushing blood through two animal hides. But then: a pornographic scene. An adult male lion taking his lady from behind. This is it—this is sex! Though it is also something else entirely.

The male is thrusting with all his might. The female simply looks on, her eyes black and unknowable. Tolerant. I can taste vodka sauce from lunch, rancid, at the corners of my mouth. I think I see the lioness glance at me before laying her head in the dirt. I fall back from the window thinking Jonathan and Mathew will do the same, but they do not.

The boys’ mouths are making minute circles of steam on the windows. Sometimes we do this on the bus. Once Mathew stuck his fingers into my steam residue, drawing a heart. But now Jonathan rolls down his window, trying to hang out a little further before my father bellows for him to get his goddam head back in the jeep.


Eventually, as a teenager, I researched and planned an escape—to acting school in London. I talked my parents into allowing me to travel oversees to audition. Mom thought it was an exciting adventure, one she and Dad had prepared me for. Dad was more reserved. Sitting around the table discussing whether it was a viable option, he said, “If you get in trouble, we can’t bail you out.” I was on my way.

The night before my audition for The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Dad came into my room and told me we were switching hotels. He was always on the lookout for a better deal, and I thought he had found a cheaper hotel. We packed our bags, got into a taxi, and moments later we were standing on the doorstep of the Baden Powell Boy Scout Hostel.

Even then, a part of me could feel what I now understand: my father was scared. He may have already come to terms with that fact that he had lost me ideologically, but now he was losing me geographically as well. Perhaps the Boy Scout hostel was one last attempt at persuading me to stay, not only in the States, but also with him as his child. It was certainly still the last thing we had to argue about.

For my audition, I had prepared Queen Margaret from Henry The VI Part 3. Margaret was known as the She-Wolf of France, and in this scene she makes her enemy dry his tears with a handkerchief soaked in the blood of his child before placing a paper crown on top of his head and stabbing him to death. I was ready to channel all my aggression into the performance.

But I had no nuance. In fact, I was mostly re-enacting how my father would lose his temper in a parking lot too full for us to get a good spot. I couldn’t comprehend that Queen Margaret was a young woman standing alone on a battlefield, fighting a war that wasn’t even for her own country. I didn’t see that she was terrified, exposed, and driven to extremes. I didn’t see how clearly that monologue—and my performance of the monologue—revealed my own internal identity struggle. I was playing my father’s hostility and rage, while suppressing my own vulnerability.

During my performance the director placed his head in his hands. I wasn’t accepted into a single school.


At night, at the hostel there are no phones so I walk through the rain to find a payphone. I call Mom and shed tears in the cloudy phone-box that I can’t let Dad see. I’m wearing the new leather jacket Dad bought me especially for the trip, telling me I look like a “real London city gal.” He says I should buy a Vespa to match, so I can take off my helmet, and shake out my hair. I am overjoyed that he could see me for what I wanted to be taken for: a woman who owns a Vespa, a woman with power in her hair.

Back at Baden Powell, an adult Scout is manning the reception. He is dressed in full uniform and it looks stupid, like a grown-up wearing a child’s costume. I tell him I’m staying with my father in room 301, and can he please buzz me in. He gives me a suspicious stare. My hair has gone from curls to a wet tail pounding my back. The skin around my eyes has crimson trails of broken capillaries, and there are rivers of Maybelline running down my cheeks. My leather jacket doesn’t help.

The Scout starts to stutter, “We don’t allow women who are…” But he can’t finish his sentence. I stand there not understanding. Then it dawns on me.

My two fists go down hard on this desk. I stare him dead in the eye and tell him to call my father. I can see that I have scared him and I am glad.

On the phone he whispers to Dad that he has a visitor. My father shuffles down to the lobby, clearly confused. I say, “He didn’t believe I was your daughter.” I leave Dad alone to figure out what has happened.

When Dad comes upstairs he is visibly shaken. He keeps picking things up putting them down right away. Finally, he looks at his hands and says, “I’m sorry about that. I’m sorry about school. I’m sorry about the whole thing.”

I knew I had won our Boy Scout argument, but I didn’t want to anymore, not like this. I wanted the past back. I wanted the moment where I could have been a Boy Scout. Where I wouldn’t have brushed my hair for Jonathan or Matthew, or wanted to become an actress. Where I would never have gotten mistaken for my father’s prostitute.

This line, drawn over and over again for my younger self, remains a boundary that is still always moving. Maybe it is so for every woman? When did I stop being a free agent over my desire, and found it belonged to someone else, a man who would change it according to his needs?

My relationship with my father was not immune to this separation I feel between myself and all men. Perhaps because he is my father, the river is only wider, wilder, something alive, like a child turning in her sleep. It is impossible for either of us to cross.

Lacy Warner holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University. She is currently at work on a memoir about spending her childhood following her American diplomat parents from one disaster zone to another. She has written for Roxane Gay’s literary blog, The Butter, The Columbia Journal, Narratively, and others. Follow her on Instagram @unlikeablefemalenarrator.