Over the river and through the woods

“Character Counts” has become the mantra of Lower Merion, seen on posters, T-shirts and at the end of the daily announcements. 

I believe that character counts above all else.

But “Character Counts” risks becoming, like all mantras, just a repetitious sound, devoid of meaning. So, I’d like to take a chance to ponder the meaning of the phrase.

Anyone who has had a class with me knows that I am a huge movie buff, so I’d like to start with the definition of character from The King’s Man – “Reputation is what people think of you. Character is what you are.” Although it is poignant, there is a trap in it. It is easy to mistake accomplishments with character. 

For example, there is a difference between a student who works their tail off for a B+, and one who cheats for an A; between students who genuinely engage with the world around them, and those who pad their resumes for college applications; between a business owner who struggles to pay his workers a living wage, and one who gets rich breaking unions and avoiding taxes. 

Character cannot be defined by outward success. It is internal; our character constantly reveals itself in many little ways. Our actions expose our character in bright, vivid color. When someone trips in the hall, do you laugh, or help them up? When a waitress is short-tempered, do you try to make her day better, or do you grumble about it and leave a lousy tip? When a driver cuts you off, do you chase after them to cut them off, do you give them the finger, or shake your head quietly and move on? All of these examples involve making a decision about how to act, and all of them reveal your character. Whether intentional or not, each of our actions and each of our decisions demonstrate our character.

There is an easy test to help you judge your actions and decisions. Would you tell your grandmother? Your grandmother already knows that you’re smart, beautiful, talented, and wonderful, so impressing her, and making her proud is never about outward success. 

So, if you are throwing food in the cafeteria, would you tell Grandma?

If you are cheating on your chemistry test, would you tell Grandma? 

If you are shoplifting gum at the Wawa or tripping the kid no one likes, or posting nasty things online about other students or your teachers, or using your “Finsta” to post stuff you don’t want your parents or future boss to know about, would you tell Grandma?  

And if you feel your grandmother wince, you know that the action is not who you want to be or who you think you are.

Basing your choices and actions on the grandmother test may not make you the richest, the most successful, or the most famous, but it will allow you to look in the mirror with confidence that you are the best you can be. To quote another movie–Batman Begins– “It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.”

So, go out there and make your grandmother proud. Character counts.

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