A speech by senior Frannie Miller at the NHS Induction Ceremony
Character. In describing this pillar of their program, the NHS criteria state: “The student of good character upholds principles of morality and ethics; is cooperative; demonstrates high standards of honesty and reliability; shows courtesy, concern, and respect for others; and generally maintains a clean disciplinary record.” That is quite a mouthful. This word—“character”—which took 34 words in English to describe, as well as five semi-colons—seems to me to be easily abbreviated into two Hebrew words: Derech eretz.
But what does it mean to have derech eretz? I could quote a multitude of Rabbinic statements for you. But I won’t. Why not? Because this isn’t the d’var Torah.
However, what does it mean to have character—or “derech eretz”—at Ida Crown? Well, I could boastfully ramble in the most pretentious scholarly language that I can muster about the moral fiber of my fellow NHS selectees, about their stalwart integrity and work ethic, about their ample respect for the learning environs of the hallowed halls of this school. But I won’t. Why not? Because I would be exaggerating.
Don’t get me wrong. These people sitting behind me are honorable and considerate and hardworking and respectful to their teachers—but seriously, we’re also teenagers. We can be honorable and considerate and hardworking and respectful—but we can also be grumpy and cranky and sassy and snappy.
What does it mean for a teenager—the sleepy, moaning, disheveled creature wrapped in a cocoon of blankets who lives in your basements—to have character? What does it mean for an Ida Crown student—one out of 300 people among the forty million teens in the U.S—to have character?
It means that you wake up in the morning, bleary-eyed and vicious after several hours of homework, get yourself to school, and with your kippa clinging to your head by a single pin or your skirt just barely skimming your knees, make it to davening with 30 seconds to spare before the bell rings.
It means that although you need to cram for the Navi exam you had completely forgotten about during breakfast, you stop to help a freshman open her locker. It means that you attend four Judaic classes every morning, and even during those times when you want to literally explode from pent up stress over APs or college applications or the season finale of How I Met Your Mother, you somehow manage to muffle the internal storm.
It means that during lunch you meet with a teacher to understand something you hadn’t gotten in class or help your friend out with his homework or even try to eliminate an assignment from your own never ending abyss of homework. Maybe during these precious 37 minutes of free time you go to a meeting for a club you care about, or an info session for a college you wish you could get into.
It means that you go to your afternoon classes with renewed vigor, participating and paying attention and scribbling down notes, and leave them with renewed stress as you ponder over the new material and the new assignment you will have to do when you get home.
It means that at 5:37—or 5 o’ clock on Wednesday—you go home.
Or maybe you don’t go home. Maybe you stay for cross country, or wrestling, or debate, or Model UN, or the plethora of activities at Ida Crown. Maybe you go volunteer for Keshet, or help out at a wedding, or plan events for Student Council. Maybe you go fill out your Common Apps. Maybe you go make a pan of brownies for your friend, whose birthday is tomorrow.
And then you go do your homework.
And then late at night you sink your face into your pillow, only to wake up six hours later to repeat the previous process over again. And then you repeat this process over again. Five times, for about forty weeks. And then you repeat that entire process over again for four years. And voila, you have yourself an Ida Crown NHS finalist.
So what does character mean here?
Character is a paradox. It is the strength and the perseverance to do what has to be done, but it is also an internal softness, an ability to remember what is really important. Even as you are petrified by decisions and responsibilities, you do not let yourself become a robot. You remember what is really important—things that aren’t just scores or letters or grades: human relationships, human communities, and human dreams. Although you spend so much time inside your mind and on your computer, you do not forget derech eretz—the way of the earth.