In public education we have come to appreciate that the culture in our schools contributes to a positive learning experience almost as much as the quality of instruction. In recent years we have devoted considerable attention to building character in children with moral precepts like being trustworthy, dependable, and respectful as we encourage them to make good ethical choices about their behavior. But character is only an abstract concept unless it is tested. Believing you have character is easy when, well, it’s convenient. Proving you actually have character can only happen when you have to take responsibility for your actions and endure the implications and repercussions of your decision.
An excellent case in point is my great nephew Zachary Williamson. Zach is pretty amazing. He has all of the boundless energy and enthusiasm of any ten year old boy. Each day for him is an expedition into his own fascinating world of exploration full of Legos, monster trucks, Cub Scouts, World Wrestling Federation, class projects, inventions, sports, and superheroes. Like all young boys he is at times a confusing and confounding jumble of anachronisms, ambitions, and antics. As the complexity of the world opens up to him he can be as erratic as a butterfly as he flits from one passionate endeavor to another. Zach is a character all right; just being around him makes you smile. But it isn’t that Zach is a character, it’s that he demonstrates character at such an early age that is truly remarkable.
When he was just eight years old, Zach made a decision to grow his hair out long and eventually donate it to Locks of Love, the organization that supplies wigs to children dealing with cancer and the devastating effects of chemotherapy. Each lock had to be at least ten inches long which meant that this was not going to be a simple act of charity like dropping a coin into a basket or spending a day cleaning up the shoulder of a highway. Zach’s decision was a personal commitment that was going to be ongoing. It was an act of compassion for a person he would never know. Zach’s test of character was definitely not going to be easy, and along the way he would have to resist the temptation to abandon his decision when it became inconvenient, uncomfortable, or embarrassing. This was his decision alone and in the ensuing two years Zach passed the test of character with flying colors. He drew comfort, encouragement, and support from his parents, sisters and friends who helped him find true north on his moral compass as the days turned into months and years.
As Zach began to grow his hair, he started to get teased at school, but he endured. After the first year, he was frequently mistaken for a girl, but he endured. His principal finally told the student body about Zach’s quest to grow his hair long enough to donate and the teasing stopped. When he changed to a new school, he wore a T-shirt proclaiming, “I’m a Dude! Growing it for Locks of Love” to pre-empt the taunts. The toughest challenges came when he was out in public as insensitive or unthinking adults told him to get out of the Men’s Restroom or called him “Sweetie.” But Zach endured. When the going got tough, Zach stayed true to his decision and stood his ground with the inner strength of a Spartan. A model of courage and commitment that many adults could not have mustered.
One side benefit of his flowing locks was that he was able to pull off a pretty convincing look at Halloween as the superhero Thor. Most little boys fantasize about their favorite super power: being able to fly, invisibility, or super strength. My little superhero Zach found his super power . . . inside of himself. His super power is his character with a heavy dose of compassion, conviction and courage. I can’t wait to see how he uses these super powers on his continuing journey to manhood.
On the day he got his haircut, Zach triumphantly proclaimed, “I feel like a boy again.” Not so my little superhero, you should feel like a man because you have given us a powerful reality check on the true test of character.