Parents, teachers, and students gathered in the high school auditorium that Wednesday afternoon, May 14, 1969, for the annual National Honor Society induction ceremony. I’d been inducted as a junior the year before but otherwise didn’t have a clue why I was asked to give one of the four “Explanation of Criteria for Membership” speeches. I would have preferred to speak about scholarship, service, even leadership.
But the powers-that-be gave me Character.
On stage behind me sat Dr. Sim, guest speaker and Superintendent of Schools, his arm in a sling. Assistant Principal Mr. Peters would introduce the new members, and Mr. Foley the Principal would administer the oath.
I marched to the podium in my mini-skirt and long hair, gazed into the audience then read from the single sheet of paper on which I’d typed my speech.
“Dr. Sim, Mr. Foley, Mr. Peters, Faculty, parents, and my fellow students.”
“Character is an often confused generalization. It may be used to describe one’s vivacious personality; however, I shall define one’s character as his quality of reasoning as reflected in his behavior. Each person has his own quality. Considering one’s character as a student and potential adult, one must be aware of the individual’s self-motivation, discipline, and maturity. With these tools, the student faces his everyday situations and hopefully deals with them responsibly. He successfully communicates with adults and his peers to achieve his goals.”
The microphone began to cut in and out, a common occurrence so I kept reading.
“At this point of development, many try to find themselves and their worth. They try to take on many responsibilities so that they may be involved while they seek identity. In their own transitions, youth have become more vocal and active, especially on campuses. They have expressed their views toward society in their own fashions. Many times their methods have been confused but always searching; many times they’ve pointed out the wrongs without giving realistic solutions. Such are the conditions that are publicized. If youth is as aware as one is led to believe, such confusions will be resolved; adults of quality will result.”
I had no idea if anyone heard me. But as I returned to my seat, I remember thinking, mission accomplished. It was a time of Vietnam War protest, the Black Power movement, Women’s Liberation, and SDS—Students for a Democratic Society. I had stated my position, one of a seventeen year old who thought she had everything under control.
A year later, four students were shot and killed at Kent State, thousands of students went on strike, and hundreds of campuses shut down. And Dr. Sim died of bone cancer, leaving a wife and young children.
My younger self was convinced that rationality and willfulness would be enough. It wasn’t. It isn’t.
My middle-aged self made a different choice: to walk humbly with God. Faith was a harder choice than I ever imagined, and far better.
It’s a choice I make every day, every moment. It’s a choice that admits failure and weakness, and that I am not in control. It’s a choice that gives me Character.
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