Hey, my teenage sons — it’s time for your old man to give you a little more unwanted advice. I know the two of you are soon to start your sophomore year of high school and don’t really care for “words of wisdom” and that sort of crap; I can dig that. I also know that you are built on strong moral and intellectual foundations – cool. You are trusted and respected by the adults around you and in your peer group – well done. However …
You have been thrown into the most manic of maelstroms and the weirdest of worlds teenagers have faced in a very long time. Nothing is even close to the way it was just six months ago. Your school, your friends, your teachers will all be literally unrecognizable. There will be plexiglass everywhere, checkpoints, masks and distancing. There will be fear and anxiety in the air. Folks will be testy and it’s not gonna be a lot of fun, although you have the character to make the best of it. I think. Honestly, it’s all going to seem really unfair.
Unfairnesses, plural, are what’s being thrown at you. You know I’d take them if I could, every rotten tyrannical tomato and caustic cabbage and raunchy raw egg, but I can’t. I’m afraid it’s your turn to duck. But I’d like to help, so I’m going to tell a probably pointless story.
I knew a girl in college, the girlfriend of a very close friend of mine. She was nice, a little aloof, pretty, and very focused on her dream of becoming an actor. I got to know her well enough. We had classes and did shows together. I was around her a lot and, by the third year of school, we were fairly close. That summer we ended up in a crowd that played a lot of euchre, the card game we still play regularly. Almost every free night we had was cards and beers and music and … well, you get the picture.
And that’s when I started to notice that, well, she cheated.
Euchre is pretty easy to cheat at, especially if you can count cards, which is made even easier because you only use half the deck in the game. I’d watch carefully and see her check the bottom card, shift cards in the deck, and even move clearly ear-marked cards into her hand as she dealt. I saw that she like to pick her chair, sometimes adamant about it, and came to realize that she wanted to be next to someone who didn’t protect their cards from the eyes of others.
I didn’t call her on it. I knew that would be drama fodder for her. So, I just made sure I never sat next to her, and if I partnered with her, I played poorly. And, I knew I couldn’t trust her.
She went on to grad school I think, and we lost track of each other years ago. Recently, I reconnected with another friend from those days and we got to talking about the old times and the gang we hung with, as one does, and the cheating girlfriend came up. I said that it always bothered me that she cheated at cards and never felt I could trust her. She laughed and told me she cheated at and on everything. Tests, papers, boyfriends, friends, taxes, husbands, bosses, coworkers, games – everything.
I wasn’t terribly surprised, but I did wonder aloud why she was like that. My friend said, quite simply, that she chose it. Apparently, she’d been a good and honest girl all the way until she got to high school. Then she lost a brother in Vietnam. Her parents divorced. A dog died. All sorts of unfairnesses plagued her and, she decided if life was going to be so cruel and arbitrary, she’d stop playing fair. She made a decision to change her life for, well, the worse.
Forgivable? That’s your call, but I don’t think so.
So, what’s my point here?
Don’t cheat, that’s all.
I know, I know, you are both not wired that way. I’ve seen both of you actively not cheat: calling your own foul ball in a baseball game, telling the ref the ball was out on you on the soccer pitch, realizing you’d seen another’s hand in a card game.
Here’s the problem, boys, you’re going to see some folks cheating this year. With the mix of half in school and half online learning the stage is set for it. I’ve seen article after article on the problem in magazines and online in the past few weeks. And, to make matters worse, you’re going to see a lot of kids justify it by saying if life can be this unfair, why should I care if I cheat? Why does it even matter?
One word. See if you can get it from its definition: The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.
People see integrity in others, I guarantee it. I see integrity in you.
You will, also, see the lack of it in others for the whole of your lives. In swampy politics, sketchy business models, even in salacious, pointless entertainment shows and a broken music scene. People are dishonest, people cheat, people use others and disregard resources and do not follow rules (I am looking at you anti-maskers). For the honest among us, that hurts and, worse, tempts us toward the same devious chicanery we see others blithely get away with.
I see the potential for this year challenging your integrity. I don’t know how to tell you to defend it, but I know you need to try. Defending it will ask for courage, decency, honor and truth in a world that devalues all those values.
Good luck and come to us when you are struggling, I was a bartender for 30 years and have some stories to tell about cheats and frauds and how things worked out for them — honestly, it never well. I’ve also seen the best people lead the best lives because they protected themselves and their souls — that place where integrity lives.
C.S. Lewis said: “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”
I say it all the time: Just do the next right thing. That’s always what you need to do. And sometimes, that is a very difficult call. I know you’re up for it, and I think your generation is as well.
Advice is hard … Here, this one’s easier and succinct: Don’t fry bacon naked. You’ll thank me for that someday.
Peace boys, it’s a tough time to be 15. I’m truly sorry for that.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bill Peebles left a 30-year career in the restaurant business to become a stay-at-home dad to twin boys. He writes a blog, I Hope I Win a Toaster, that makes little sense. He coaches sometimes, volunteers at the schools, plays guitar, and is a damn good homemaker. He believes in hope, dreams, and love … but not computers.