As part of the middle school advisory program at my school this year, we’ve been focusing on the theme of integrity. From the start, most of my advisees already understood the first definition that’s listed in a print or online dictionary when you look up the word integrity; they already knew that having integrity means being honest and showing strong moral principles.
But they weren’t as familiar with the definition that appears second. They didn’t know, until we looked up the word together, that integrity also means “the state of being whole and undivided.” So after we spent some time grappling with the first definition of integrity as we debated the honest, moral thing to do in different scenarios, we moved on to the second definition.
According to a piece by Connecticut Friends School on the Friends Journal website, having integrity means letting your inner life match your outer life. Living with integrity means honoring your passions and talents and sharing them with others. Inspired by these ideas, I asked my advisees to take turns teaching the group about something that is important to them: something that makes them who they are, but that the rest of us might not know about.
So far, we’ve learned French and Mandarin words from students who speak those languages at home. One student used diagrams and a YouTube video to show us how she navigates a slalom course. One took us outside on a very cold day and taught us how to throw and catch a lacrosse ball. One brought in Saudi food to share with us, and one taught us a hip-hop dance (which none of the rest of us could really do…but we all tried!).
At this point in the school year, I know all of my advisees pretty well. But this activity has reminded me that there are plenty of things I don’t know about them. They have full lives outside of school—lives that are sometimes rewarding and sometimes frustrating, sometimes energizing and sometimes draining. It’s been really wonderful to find out more about their varied interests and areas of expertise.
This activity also has implications for fiction writing. I think it’s a helpful exercise for writers to ask themselves what their characters might teach a group of classmates if they were asked to share an interest with the group. Lissy, the main character in my YA manuscript REBOUND, came to life when I discovered her passion for baking (which is definitely the interest she would share with a group of classmates). As soon as I made her a baker, her voice became more distinctive and she became more likable, because she turns into the best, most confident version of herself when she bakes.
On the other hand, it also might be telling if a character does not have a clearly defined passion. In the YA project that I’m working on now, the main character has a very clear goal that she’s fixated on, but it’s not an internally driven passion—it’s an externally driven obsession. Recently, I realized that if she were one of my advisees and I asked her to share one of her interests with the group, she wouldn’t know what to share. I could picture her listening to other people’s presentations and beating herself up because she doesn’t have a true passion. And in fact, it’s important to her character and her journey that she doesn’t yet have an interest that makes her feel whole and accomplished when the book begins.
As you can probably tell, I’ve found it really interesting to think about what it means for me, my students, and the fictional characters I read and write about to live with, or in pursuit of, this version of integrity. I hope it might be helpful for you to think about that, too!