Years ago, I had a student who wrote an outstanding paper for me on The Diary of Anne Frank. Her compassion and understanding for Anne - someone who was unjustly persecuted - ran deep throughout her analysis.
Soon after she submitted the paper, I intercepted a note in class -- those were the days when note-passing was both an artful and surreptitious form of communication among kids. It turns out that my student who had shown such sensitivity to Anne Frank had also written a hurtful note about a classmate.
After school, she returned to my classroom, weighted down by her action. It’s one thing to write about compassion; it’s quite another to act with it. She had compromised her integrity, and being the insightful person she was, she knew it.
At its root, integrity means wholeness -- living in such a way that our actions and our values align. Young people are experts at bending themselves to what they perceive their audience wants them to be -- be it teachers, parents, peers, or society. And that can cause unexpected internal conflict. Sometimes students get trapped by labels -- the good girl, the athlete, the techie, the musician -- which can make it more challenging for them to explore the full range of interests, emotions, strengths, and foibles that make them unique.
Labels quite literally held powerful sway over me, when I was in middle school. Designer jeans were all the rage, and I battled my parents day and night for permission to buy at least one pair. My folks held their ground. ”No daughter of mine will be defined by the label stitched across her back side,” my father exclaimed. Bonjour had just come in fashion, but I was sporting no-name jeans with stars stitched on the back pocket.
An invitation to the mall by three “popular” girls in the class caused me consternation and distress. I carefully selected a long top to cover the generic brand and hoped to pass unnoticed. Everything seemed under control, until I stepped onto the escalator. My shirt rode up just enough to reveal the stars. “What kind of jeans are they?” one of my classmates laughed. I was mortified.
It’s a crushing and vulnerable feeling to be caught masquerading; even so, kids are constantly tempted to impress, because they want so much to fit in and belong.
In addition to labels preventing them from being themselves, the high stakes of high school, college admission, and an often uncertain future play into these natural teenage vulnerabilities. The blind push for success can lead students away from thinking about who they really are and who they are called to be.
Now, more than ever, young people need our encouragement to live integrity.
They need opportunities to press pause and reflect on what they are aiming at and who they are called to be. Labels, what other people think, moments in time, and mistakes do not have to define them.
As we accompany young people along their journey -- a journey, which sometimes leaves them feeling at odds with what they want, what their parents want, what their peers, school, and society seem to be saying they ought to want--we can coach them towards integrity and wholeness, reminding them often that:
- They are children of God, unique, unrepeatable, one of a kind -- and called to fulfill a particular mission in this world.
- They do not need to conform to other people’s ideas of them.
- They can let go of negative self-talk.
- They can communicate what they think and care about clearly and kindly.
- They can handle a few blows, take some risks and learn from mistakes - and not break easily in the face of them.
- They are protagonists in their own life story. And that the best stories have conflicts, disappointments, adventure, joys, and sorrows.
- They, like we, are works in progress. Every day offers a new beginning, a fresh start to becoming the best version of ourselves.