By 8:30 on Thursday morning the future homemakers had returned from their 6 AM, 5K “Fun Run” around Grant Park. A tall, thin girl with blond hair had a suggestion that she shared only with her fellow Illinoisans. “You know, there’s been so many ‘teen pregnancy’ and ‘safe sex’ workshops, right?” There was a little murmur of agreement. “I think they should be spread out a little more.” Everyone nodded, apparently making mental notes to have fewer in the future.

A boy across the room thought there should be more workshops like the keynote address on Monday night, when motivational speaker Brian O’Malley discussed the challenges he encountered trying to climb Mount Everest. “And let’s get more workshops where we’re involved, ’cause otherwise they’re boring.”

The national convention of the Future Homemakers of America–2,400 teens, 15 percent of them boys, and 1,000 chaperons–had broken up into its 53 chapter groups, from all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. They had dispersed to rooms around the Hyatt Regency Chicago to discuss what they liked most and least about the convention, which had begun the previous weekend. They were also brainstorming about their upcoming state conventions.

The members of the Illinois chapter–mostly girls, along with a few teachers and boys–had congregated in the Acapulco Room, all of them wearing red-and-white “State of Illinois” T-shirts. Their talk drifted away from future workshops. Would that night’s big party, where Second City was scheduled to entertain, include a full-course meal or just hors d’oeuvres? Would there be time to change out of their formals after the special closing ceremony at the Chicago Theatre? Should they have a mixer at the beginning of the state convention in Peoria, so the attendees could “get a cohesiveness,” or after it was over, when the kids had gotten to know each other? Should the mixer include a formal sit-down dinner, just any old food, or just snacks? Formals? Casual clothes? Music and dancing? Games such as “dum dum” to break the ice?

“Dum dum,” I was told by a big blond with seven pierces in one ear and two in the other, is a rhythmic chant that gets faster and faster as people slap their own thighs, noses, and ears until everyone cracks up laughing.

“There’s nowhere in Peoria that has any decent recreational facilities,” said one teacher. “So a mixer is very important.”

Another teacher said no hotel food in Peoria is worth the money or even worth eating. “The Hilton is awful, and I don’t know much about the Ramada Renaissance. So if a banquet is held, it should be catered–mostaccioli, beef, potato, vegetable.”

They all nodded their heads.

“Oh, by the way, some of us are going to the Berghoff for lunch today at 1:30,” said the same teacher. “So if anyone would like to join us, let me know so I can change the reservation.”

Another teacher reminded the kids to settle their room bills before the end of the day. “Like if you watched a movie or used the bar. I mean, you weren’t supposed to–but as long as you pay, it’s OK.”

There were a few more suggestions about the Illinois convention: “If we do have a formal banquet with a keynote speaker and we have to wear formals, make sure it’s a good speaker.”

A few kids reminisced about the convention’s raucous bylaw and amendment fight and vote and the professional parliamentarian who’d worked to keep order. Susan Burge, of the Illinois Department of Education, pointed out that being a parliamentarian would make a good career. “I submitted an amendment to be voted on,” a girl with a long red ponytail said proudly. “I wrote it on notebook paper.”

Burge explained the importance of writing press releases about the activities they’d participated in at the convention for their local papers so the public could be better informed about what the future homemakers were doing.

There was a little giggling and a little roughhousing between the boys and girls. The teachers shushed them mildly, but basically everyone was very well behaved.

For a week the Hyatt and Illinois Center were overrun with future homemakers. The female members looked like crosses between 4-H girls and sluts–wholesome girls with big hair and tight clothes. The males were crosses between little boys and rock stars. The shops and restaurants in the Illinois Center welcomed the business. The busboy in Burger King said, “We’ve been packed because of that convention.”

They came from around the country to learn, socialize, and get motivated–through “Power of One” workshops and talks such as “What Mother Teresa, You and Michael Jordan Have in Common.” They also came to show off school projects, including mock business plans for starting day-care centers, plans for programs that get gang members on probation involved in the community, and professional recipe demonstrations by chefs in training. Susan Burge showed off a picture of one boy’s colorful taco salad, cheese soup, and berries-and-cream dessert, all displayed on a flowered tablecloth. “They really guard their pots and pans and knives,” she said.

The current FHA philosophy is that everyone will be a homemaker someday.

“These are the best-behaved kids I’ve ever seen,” said an elderly man in the Hyatt elevator. “If this is what the country’s coming to, we’re in good shape.”

Another elderly man on another elevator said, “Oh, you girls are with the Future Homemakers of America? What are you here for? To exchange your vacuum cleaners?”

When she heard these anecdotes, Susan Burge told the Illinois kids, “You need to explain what we do on a one-on-one basis.”

The FHA convention has picked every U.S. president right since 1968. In a mock election at the beginning of this one, the numbers came down this way: Perot, 31.6 percent; Bush, 30.1 percent; Clinton, 19.8 percent; and undecided, 18.8 percent.

Attracting more attention was the election of the FHA national president, 17-year-old Corey Brown, a football player, straight-A high school student, and part-time photographer for a local paper in rural South Dakota.

“The national officers used to be like gods to me in a way,” said Brown, who’s been attending conventions since seventh grade. His award-winning FHA projects have included a demonstration of how to interview for a job and plans for starting a business to set up computer systems for farmers and small-town businesspeople, which garnered him a loan of $7,000 from his local chamber of commerce. He now works as a computer consultant part-time and has made enough to pay back the loan.

Brown–tall, thin, straight, and overly polite–says he wants to be a lawyer or a politician. And he wants to get married and have three kids, though he wouldn’t want to stay home with them. Either his wife would (“It’s up to her”) or they’d have to use day care. He says his homemaking skills are in the areas of family communication, starting a business, and having a close relationship with his kids. “Homemaking today includes nutrition, managing money, getting a job, and dealing with the environment. I want to be a spark plug to change the image of the Future Homemakers of America. It’s really geared to both sexes– girls and boys who aren’t sissies.”

Brown voted for Bush in the mock election, pointing out that the president deserves to be reelected for his stands on education, abortion, the environment, taxes, and personal integrity.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rick Reinhard.