I Used to Hate the Word Character

06.25.2020 ,

By Roxanna Pasquier, student at Barnard College

It’s no secret that the world is a very different place from when I was younger, and I’m only 21. When I was young, our world was divided into good and bad, yes or no, and fun or not fun, but as I’ve aged, I’ve learned that beyond these binaries exists complexity and nuance. Ideas that were once simple only grow more complicated as time passed. For me, the idea of character was once simple. It meant being a good person. However, as I’ve aged the concept changed and seemed to confer a specific set of morals. Over the past few weeks working at Character.org I have reflected on my growing relationship with the word “character.”

A Skewed Definition

My first formal introduction to the word “character” came in second grade. Next to the whiteboard, my teacher had arranged the word out of colorful block letters. Surrounding the stapled-on letters was a variety of actions that reflected character- inviting a new student to play during recess, offering a classmate part of my snack, or saying sorry for breaking my friend’s toy. My teacher explained that character was about being a good friend and doing what’s right. After that first introduction, I grew more aware of the word’s presence in my life. I heard it in my principal’s speeches before assemblies, I saw it in motivational posters, and of course I heard it through the words of Martin Luther King. In honor of President Obama’s inauguration, my fourth-grade teacher rolled in the TV cart and showed us a black and white video of the “I Have a Dream” speech. By middle school, I had a clear and straightforward understanding of “character.”

However, as I aged, the word seemed to disappear from the mainstream, until high school when I started hearing the word from the mouths of folks with a very specific worldview. The word “character” was increasingly used to describe a specific set of behaviors. Character didn’t mean sharing a snack with my classmate, it now meant not asking my classmate for a snack if I was hungry. Inviting a classmate to play was no longer a display of character; instead, character was finding my own fun. Finally, character was no longer taking responsibility for breaking my friend’s toy; character was playing with my own toy. Semantically, character soon became synonymous with self-reliance and a concern for authority. In short, character seemed to become partisan.

As the years passed, I shied away from the word character. I would never think to describe a friend as a person of character, instead I would say that they were caring or open-minded. Amongst my circles, “character” became uncomfortable to the ear. High school ended and college began, and my discomfort with the word only progressed as the world grew increasingly partisan. That is until this summer.

A New Perspective

Prior to the current pandemic, I had accepted an internship at a non-profit. After months of tweaking my resume and editing my cover letters, I was relieved that day in February when I finally received a letter of acceptance. My excitement carried me through until mid-May when my boss called to inform me that they had cancelled the summer internship. I was crushed, but I needed to find a way to salvage this summer. Through my extended network I was offered an internship at Character.org. At first, I was apprehensive as the word character suggested a partisan agenda different from my own. However, as the weeks went by, I started to chip away at my mental block towards the word. As part of my internship, I started researching the positive effects of character cultivation in students on academic and social performance. As well, during an assignment to educate myself on advocacy, I researched other education non-profits.

As I compared Character.org to other organizations, I realized the word “character” captures a precise and irreparable quality. Through my work at Character.org I was able to divorce the concept of character from its newly acquired cache. As well, in light of the recent protests I was reminded of the word’s important context within the Civil Rights Movement. After reflecting on my own personal values, I have created my own understanding of the word character. For me, character means taking responsibility, embracing humility, and concerning myself with the well-being of my wider community. Through my involvement with Character.org, I have returned to a simple definition.