Integrity, like character, is not something you instantly want and quickly and conveniently acquire. Integrity is earned over time. Some people have it, some don't. Some people have it and lose it; once lost, it's difficult to reacquire. Integrity is all about being consistent--about choosing right over easy, fairness over special interest, principles over personal gain.
Sometimes, most unfortunately, one's integrity is assigned to you by others through "profiling" a cohort of people. I am a pretty good example of that.
I currently serve in the Vermont House of Representatives. I am a politician. Get lumped into the politician cohort and most people instantly, subconsciously, lower their opinion of your integrity. Why? Because when high-profile people do not demonstrate good integrity, their failures are very public. When that happens to enough members of a group, people begin to profile the group with that negative trait. Start with President Nixon's resignation, go through the seemingly endless number of recent resignations from Congress, and to the very unfortunate, sad fall from grace that is now playing out in the courts for John Edwards.
For three years I sold used cars. While not so much locally, the larger perception of a used-car salesman is that of a huckster. Movies entitled Suckers and True Lies chronicle their exploits. Comedies with Robin Williams and Danny DeVito highlighted the dark side of used-car sales people. It's probably good that I did not sell used cars while serving in the Vermont House!
Last, I am a teacher. Finally moving onto positive ground! Most people, especially in Vermont and more especially in the Northeast Kingdom, have a positive view of educators.
Take a look at a cohort group like the National Honor Society. Being a member of that group instantly conjures up a positive opinion of integrity, a value that will be recognized when you wear the gold braid signifying your membership.
Personal integrity can be defined by the words by which you plan to live, how you will treat others and interact with the world. It is about who you are inside and how your values and ethics manifest themselves in the world.
Integrity is intangible. So, how does one "acquire" integrity? Integrity cannot be purchased by accomplishing a few simple acts. It cannot be negotiated, bartered, or created from verbiage. Integrity is earned and demonstrated through action. It comes by consistently showing courage, consistently telling the truth, consistently seeing the world from a non-self-centered view, being loyal and fair.
Integrity manifests itself in many different ways and while always reflecting your values and ethics, "looks" different at different times in your life. We have all seen the pictures on Facebook of one infant twin helping the other; perhaps you can remember "sharing" during your elementary school years. During the confusing years of middle school, people were not satisfied and happy by your simple act of showing good integrity. They began to expect you to interact with the world in a non-self-centered, positive manner.
What does having "good integrity" look like in our community? What are the "expectations" of our community? As we grow older, those expectations increase.
I will draw on my experience serving as the Dean of Students at St. Johnsbury Academy for a number of years to share what I believe good integrity looks like in our community.
The first example I would like to use is bullying. Bullying at the state and national level is getting a lot of press. Unfortunately, it is also something that exists in our community. When a negative trait like bullying rises to a certain level in a society, it results in the promulgation of rules/laws. We have a student handbook that contains a section on discipline and outlines some of the more egregious examples of negative behavior and the consequence for behaving in that manner. For violating the rule!
The section in the Academy's handbook on bullying is required by state law. This law came into being due to the unfortunate suicide of a middle-school student in our state who was the subject of constant bullying at school. Currently, we have no less than three bills making their way through the legislative process to curtail bullying.
How could integrity, this intangible quality, change our culture of bullying? Bullying comes in many forms. It can be physical. The push into a locker as you pass another student in the hall. A punch as you pass. It can be verbal. The nasty, hurtful comment in front of your peers. The rumor that begins to circulate after the weekend. Most hurtful, it can be electronic. The dreaded Facebook post seen by hundreds. Our new electronic age means that bullying is not limited to the 8-3 timeframe while we are actually at school.
First and foremost, remember, integrity is action. A person of action, seeing the push, can act instantly to confront the bully. Integrity is based on values that are held and practiced regularly. Instantaneous action is almost a knee jerk reaction to something that you will not tolerate. Your simple intervention and admonishment that bullying is not part of our community, delivered quickly and consistently, will change our culture.
The negative Facebook post. Seeing that, do you have the courage to comment and place a post exposing the bully and stopping the exchange of negative comments that always follow these posts? Integrity requires courage. Integrity gives you the chance to see how much courage you have. It gives you the opportunity to act. Integrity is not a philosophy of words; it is a philosophy of action.
Confront, not rat out! Everyone supporting each other by sharing and demonstrating good values will result in the elimination of a negative behavior. The simple acknowledgement delivered consistently by the majority of our community will do what all the rules, all the pages in our student handbook, cannot deliver--that bullying is a negative act that will not be tolerated in our community.
A culture without integrity is doomed to failure. A culture with strong integrity is one that will flourish. We are very fortunate to be members of the Academy community. The Academy recognizes through its mission that being a successful member of our community is not solely about academics. It is about developing a good sense of community and character. Because this is part of our basic value system, we were able to react in the manner we did over the past month.
We turned to each other, people with integrity, for support. Receiving this support, we grew as a community, coming together as never before. Because of the strong values that were in place we were able to act instantaneously, decisively, and support each other through a time like none of us had ever experienced before.
Howard Crawford is retiring this year from decades of service at St. Johnsbury Academy. The text here is an edited version of his address at the St. Johnsbury Academy Chapter of the National Honor Society Induction Ceremony in April.