When I ran into my Brownie troop leader 40 years later, I remembered how she would listen. And look me in the eyes. I felt respected, valued, and yes, accountable.
I hadn’t seen her in 40 years yet there I was, in some waiting room, across from Mrs. Wilkerson, my old Brownie leader. She said my name and her voice was unchanged, unmistakable, primordial even, and I stood there shrinking, hair magically pigtailed. It all flooded back: the craft failures, the humiliation of Musical Chairs and the torture of trying to conceal, at one weekend meeting, a crushing private discovery: I’d worn mismatched loafers.
I’d thought about her over the years because, despite the pre-teen angst, I’d generally enjoyed being a Brownie, and later, a Girl Scout. I was a slight kid, bashful and bookish, but Mrs. Wilkerson had a way. A little younger than Mom, she was lithe and kind of tall, always smiling, and had a Marlo Thomas flip.
She would listen. And look me in the eyes. I felt respected, valued, and yes, accountable.
We mostly met in a church basement but once or twice we went to her place. For cookouts, we’d untwist wire clothes hangers and skewer marshmallows and franks. Mrs. Wilkerson would tote out her record player with the case top that doubled as speaker, and the brave giddily danced, overcome by freedom and fresh air.
Not that we didn’t have structure, which kids secretly like. We could be all business, with our crisp brown unis and regimens, then all fun, too. Time with Mrs. Wilkerson was like being with a cool-but-responsible aunt: You knew to do homework and dishes, then could eat your weight in ice cream.
I admit, I wasn’t big on selling cookies. I liked them, and our family kept them around. In retrospect, I recognize the exercise’s value: money management, people skills, goal setting, etcetera. I just didn’t cotton to it, peddling to strangers. So I was never an issue in that game.
But I do have a pin, my official gold Brownie pin, with its remaining flecks of blue and that three-finger salute, a deviation of the peace sign everyone else used. It’s in a small enamel box with a few other valued pieces, including a gaudy medal from a middle-school poetry contest, and an old beau’s class ring.
I’m not sure why I save the pin. Except that, to this day, I’m simply not a “joiner.” I’m sociable, just not the club type. But the Brownies stuck. I liked it. And I learned a lot. About life, and me.
I’m glad I got to tell her that, in that surreal meeting, half-composed and sputtering.
No, I had never sold many Thin Mints. But thanks to Mrs. Wilkerson, I’m a winner all the same.
Mary M. Chapman is a Detroit-based writer and frequent contributor to The New York Times. A former staffer for United Press International, she’s written for national publications such as Newsweek, Time, Fortune, Daily Beast, People, Crain’s and others. she is currently writing a book on Margaret Dunning titled “Belle of the Concours.”