char·ac·ter (kar ik ter) 5. a distinctive trait, quality, or attribute; characteristic 6. essential quality; nature; kind or sort 7. the pattern of behavior or personality found in an individual or group; moral constitution 8. moral strength; self-discipline, fortitude, etc. 9. good reputation-----Websters New World Dictionary
In 5th grade I read a book club selection that stays with me still: Shackleton’s Valiant Voyage, an abridged version of the diary of Sir Ernest Shackleton by Alfred Lansing. Although it only cost 50 cents, I gained a lot from reading it. This was probably the first lesson I learned independently on the meaning of character. Shackleton was a British explorer who wanted to be the first to cross the Antarctic by land; he spent two years gathering the men, supplies, and ship to embark on an expedition. It was 1912, and Shackleton dreamed of making his mark on history. But before they ever got to land, their ship, the Endurance, was trapped and slowly crushed by the brutal polar ice. Imagine being stranded on a vast expanse of ice with twenty eight men counting on you. No one is coming to rescue you… no radio, no radar. The people back home in England 11,000 miles away don’t even expect to see you again for the next two years. If you were in charge, what would you do? How would you stand up under such enormous pressure?
Ernest Shackleton stands out as a person of character, because without hesitation he gave up what he most dearly wanted and pursued a new goal — to save every one of his men and to bring them back to their families. With endurance, perseverance, and a dose of humor, he guided his men in three open boats (the size of big rowboats!) across 800 miles of rough seas. In spite of all odds, under his command, they all made it back alive. It was a stunning tale of courage, bravery, and resolve.
Shackleton was my hero, and for years I told everyone I knew about him because he so inspired me. What I learned from reading about Shackleton was later summarized by my eighth grade class graduation motto: “Determination paves the road to success.” To this day, when people tell me I have staying power or guts, I think back to the lesson on character I learned from reading about Shackleton.
Your character is the sum of the qualities or features that make you who you are and guides your actions and reactions. It’s not about being smart or athletic or good-looking. It’s about being honest, fair, and considerate, and if you are those things then you stand a pretty good chance of being a person of good character with ethical behavior.
A person of good character goes through life always trying to do the right thing. Sometimes, doing what’s right isn’t easy. Learning is part of being a person of character. At any age, it can be helpful to think about what you can learn from others and what you can do to act with character.
What can you learn from others?
Reading biographies and autobiographies offers you an opportunity to examine the lives of others for their positive character traits. Instead of focusing only on an individual’s accomplishments, ask yourself: What character traits does this individual have that are admirable? Is the subject of the story someone who is kind and cares about others? Is the individual generous, courageous, or someone upon whom others can rely? How does this person act that sets him or her apart from others?
Along with biographies and autobiographies about real people, great literature can also provide opportunities for learning about character through fictional characters. The novel To Kill a Mockingbird is rich with characters who do and don’t do the right thing. When you’re reading ask yourself: How would I describe this individual’s character in one word? Is this person someone I’d like to be like? Positive and negative traits of character can be found by examining figures in science, art, history, mathematics, government, education, and industry.
Too much of our time can be spent watching television. But as you’re watching TV, try to look at the people in the drama or sitcom to see how they treat one another and what consequences their actions have—for both good and bad. How many times have you watched a show and thought to yourself, “Oh no…that’s a mistake…don’t do that, or it’s going to get you in big trouble!” Sometimes it can be helpful to see what others do and learn through someone else’s experience. Living vicariously, experiencing life through someone else, can be a valuable and safe way to learn a powerful lesson.
When you’re listening to music, watching movies, or playing video and computer games what messages are the lyrics, the plot, or the actors sending you? Are the messages in sync with your own values and thoughts? Instead of simply absorbing someone else’s values, make sure that what you’re seeing and hearing promotes what you believe is valuable.
What can you do?
Being honest, fair, and considerate can be everyday occurrences. After you’ve given yourself a chance to examine character in others, practice behaving with character yourself. Start thinking about what you can do on a daily basis. Though everyone’s life is different, here are three situations that offer you an opportunity to act with character.
The temptation to cheat exists. Most people say that the person most cheated by cheating is the cheater. Cheating cheats everybody.
Be true to yourself
Have you ever been tempted to hide your skills and talents trying to fit in? You are who you are, and you need to be honest with others about yourself. You don’t have to be someone else in order to get someone else’s approval.
Don’t stay silent about bullying
Ever see a group of kids pick on or tease another kid? Has it ever happened to you? Well, take a stand against bullying. When a stronger person intimidates a weaker or more vulnerable person it’s wrong. The only reason bullying has become such a problem in schools is because most of us stay silent even when we know it’s not right. You can be a person of character by not allowing a bully to be in charge. Standing up for others can be as simple as saying, “That’s not how we treat each other in our school.”
If you can live your life being honest, fair, and considerate of others, then one day someone may be reading a book about you!
[First published in newsletter for upper-elementary students who are academically accelerated.]