By Assistant Middle School Director and Eighth-Grade Science Teacher Gerty Ward

Integrity. It is a value we uphold. We want our family, friends, teachers, students, coaches, leaders to act with integrity. Integrity means being honest, moral, decent, fair. Because the word comes from the Latin integer, integrity also means being whole, consistent, true to values, true to self.

Integrity is an ideal, but we constantly turn it into action with phrases like …
Do the right thing, even when no one is looking.
Do the right thing, not the easy thing.

These are common sayings we repeat to our students, our children, ourselves even. But what do these statements mean? And how do we know the right thing?

Close your eyes for a moment and channel your inner middle schooler. What do you have in there? Dreams of Carnegie Hall or the gridiron? Hope of just being generally famous and fabulous? Feeling gawky? Weirded out by physical changes? Wondering every day how your parents got so old? Worried about being liked? Loved? Picked for the team? And what should you wear? That is my inner middle schooler: a big messy bag of thoughts, dreams, hopes, emotions, haunted by worry that no one liked me, my skin would break out in some new way, and somehow all my clothes would fall off during science class.

The confusion of middle school is real, people. And amidst all this confusion, the middle schooler hears, “Do the right thing even when no one is looking. Do the right thing, not the easy thing. Do the hard thing, the thing that is honest and right, that is true to values, true to self. …”

Hey, I’m only 12! Where are my friends? What ARE my values?? WHO AM I??? How can I do the right thing if I don’t even know what the right thing is?

These are the students we work with every day. They are trying to figure out who they are, their place in their classroom, their friend group, their family, their team, their world. And one way to figure this out is to try things. Many things. Different things. Some good things, maybe some not so good. How does it feel to ... be nice to everyone? ... be mean to everyone? ... be a jock, a drama queen, a nerd? How does it feel to break a rule? What is it like to get caught? How is dealing with the consequences? And while they are busy with these important self-discoveries, we are working to model the right thing, the hard thing, the true thing. Through our teaching, advising, service learning, coaching, outdoor adventures, cheering and consoling, we strive to model who we are, what values we uphold and how to act with integrity. We applaud when they get it right: when they help a classmate, say the truth when it hurts, resist the temptation, obey the rules. And we are here when they don’t. Because integrity is knowing right from wrong, and that is learned — learned in a patient, caring, understanding, forgiving community that understands that to build integrity, to develop the inner voice that guides, means giving you some grace to figure this stuff out.

Inside the word integrity is grit — courage, strength of character, resolve. And I would like to suggest that grit, this embedded and essential piece of integrity, is by far the hardest, and by far the most important, in middle school. No one is going to get it right all the time — not students, not teachers, not you, not me. And when we make a mistake, do the not right thing, do the not hard thing, this is where the grit comes in. It takes real courage and character to admit a mistake, concede defeat, endure the pain of failure, to accept consequences … and to come back into the community the next day. And being welcomed back into the community after such an experience is to learn that doing the right thing, even after doing the not right thing, feels good, is good, is right. This is how the 12-year-old learns who they are, what their values are, and what is right. This is how middle schoolers learn integrity.