On My Honor

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The legendary J. B. Massey, Headmaster from 1950 to 1978, often referred to the Norfolk Academy Honor System as “the taproot of our school.”  It is what nourishes us and keeps us in place when things get tough, he would say.  And each year, it seems, the Honor System grows a little deeper and a little surer.  Let’s dig down around this root and try to understand what it’s really made of.

For starters, let’s lose the capital letters.  Yes, it’s a system, and yes, it deals with matters of honor and integrity.  But it is not a system like a complex biological or mechanical machine.  It does not have many moving parts.  Our honor system is more of a way of being than an arrangement for the production of some kind of desired result.  Sometimes I worry that the use of the word “system” gets in the way of furthering the goal of moral development of every student who attends here.  Defending the system and educating the child can sometimes be partially at odds with one another, and we must always remember that the child is our first priority.

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            For example, there always come moments (primarily in the Middle School) when a youngster does the wrong thing and is discovered by his teacher or another adult member of the community.  Often at the Middle School level the child can benefit more completely by being immediately confronted and dealt with by a competent adult rather than taken to the honor council.  The disapproval from a beloved coach or a trusted teacher, what Robert Coles called “a moment of moral pause,” may well reach the affective domain of a student much better than a prolonged honor proceeding.  A little course correction, then and there, can sometimes steer the youngster more precisely than working through the system.

This is not to say that the system doesn’t work beautifully.  As permanent faculty advisor to the Royster Honor Council, I have sat in on and helped guide many honor proceedings.  The impact on the student having to face the Council is profound.  Interestingly enough, the impact on the Council members can be equally powerful.  Those moments tend to sear the memory if not the soul.  We hope that by conducting formal proceedings we change the life of each single student and reaffirm the central importance of the system to the rest of the student body.

Over the years I have heard several “knocks” on our honor system.  There are two concerns that are oft-repeated.  The first is that having open lockers is an invitation to petty theft.  At the other end of the spectrum, some worry that we mislead children about the dangers of the “real world.”  There is some merit to the first of these.

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No one can deny that stuff goes missing from time to time, but in Royster, at least, “somebody took my calculator,’ almost inevitably changes to “I left my calculator in math class.”  That is, for every item that is stolen, there are 100 that are misplaced.  In fact, it happens once or twice every day that a student returns to the office a five-dollar bill or a calculator left out in the open. Moreover, the message sent by open lockers, both symbolic and substantive, is of immense value in and of itself.

And for both students and teachers that message is that we have agreed to trust each other.  We are willing to suffer the missing cookie every now and then in order to walk our halls feeling a part of something really big and really important. There are also obvious substantive benefits in terms of convenience and time-saving.  But those visiting our school for the first time are always startled, if not amazed, that the members of the school community have arrived at the point that they can trust each other so easily.  What a great place to be!

As to the second, I find no merit at all.  The fact that the world we have constructed here on Wesleyan Drive is more innocent than the world around it is, to my way of thinking, a very good thing.  By the time they are old enough to cogitate on such things, our students know the difference between our cherished and protected space here and the reality abroad.

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Our students know to a person not to leave the keys in an unlocked car while parking at a Tides game.  Each of our students knows of corruption in business and in politics, and having been largely immune from it for twelve years simply makes them more resistant to the temptation when it comes.

None of us is perfect.  The most positive of role models around us has done things regretted later.  Even our kindest, gentlest citizens have uttered words they wished they could have back.  The same is true about our honor system. It is not perfect.  But, like those first citizens among us, the imperfections must not obscure the mighty good it can and does accomplish.  I feel unbelievably fortunate to be a part of a school that gives so much of itself to raise up kids to be strong enough to do the right thing.  For this alone, Norfolk Academy is a special place.

On my honor.

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