Middle School Reflects on the Honor Code

On August 27, 2019, the Middle School community gathered in Eliot Chapel for the annual assembly on the Honor Code. Head of School Jay Rainey, Middle School Head Jen Schuckman, a Middle School teacher and two students shared their reflections on what the Honor Code means to them, how we can apply it to our own lives and how important it is to our Middle School family. The following day, the community gathered to sign their names on copies of the Honor Code, which are now hanging in the hall by Eliot Chapel. 

Here are excerpts from the Middle School Honor Code assembly remarks.

Jay Rainey, MICDS Head of School

In a letter sent from Paris to his nephew Peter Carr in Virginia on August 19, 1785, almost exactly 234 years ago, Thomas Jefferson offered the following advice:

“When your mind shall be well improved with science” – by which Jefferson would have meant “knowledge” or “education” generally – “nothing [else] will be necessary…, but to pursue the interests of your country, the interests of your friends, and your own interests also, with the purest integrity [and] honor. The defect of these virtues can never be made up by all the other acquirements of body and mind. Make [integrity and honor] then your first object. Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you. Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly.”

Peter Carr was 15 years old when he received that letter from his uncle – only a little older than you are now – but I am confident that it is more challenging for you to follow Jefferson’s advice today than it was for Mr. Carr to do so in 1785. For starters, the worship of material gain – of money and wealth – is far more embedded in American society than it was in his time. How much more difficult it is for you, given all the signals you receive that wealth and happiness are the same thing – which they most certainly are not, a fact that I will perhaps find another occasion to elaborate for you – how much more difficult it is for you than it would have been for Peter Carr to heed Jefferson’s imperative to “give up money… rather than do an immoral act.”

Similarly, the cult of fame that informs our media- and technology-saturated lives today simply did not exist in Jefferson’s time. There were no professional athletes, no musicians or bands attracting vast audiences and fan bases, no movie or TV or YouTube or Instagram celebrities. How much more difficult it is for you, then, to heed Jefferson’s imperative to “give up fame… rather than do an immoral act.”

But most challenging of all, I think, is Jefferson’s admonition to “act were all the world looking at you.” Anonymity is the enemy of Jefferson’s concept of “integrity.” The etymology of the word “integrity” is similar to the etymology of the word “integer,” which you know from your math classes. It is a word that literally means “untouched,” and therefore undivided. To have integrity is to be undivided, to be in the essence of your character the same person with your friends as with your families, your teachers, your coaches, your neighbors, even with strangers – and, crucially, with yourself.

“Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly.”

The false promise of anonymity is that you can shed your name and be someone else. The false promise of anonymity pretends that you can behave virtually or remotely – behave while you are texting, for example, or while you are using a social media app – in ways that you would never behave face-to-face and yet preserve your integrity. Yourself on a cell phone or on a computer is still yourself. There is no other you. And by the very definition of the word “integrity,” to divide your actions into those that you take in person versus those that you take behind a screen, or alone, is to fracture your integrity. And it may be that no one else knows but you. But your integrity is cost and casualty enough.

MICDS exists to help pour the foundation of the life that you are building. Our curricular and extracurricular programs exist to help establish in you what Jefferson called “the acquirements of body and mind.” But as he noted, “a defect of [integrity and honor] can never be made up by the acquirements of body and mind.” So our Honor Code exists to help pour and cement the foundation of your character. It exists not to threaten you but to encourage and empower you to take actions consistent with your developing sense of integrity, even – or perhaps especially – when no one is looking.

I visited a math class yesterday afternoon and was so proud of a student whose name I know, as I will eventually know all of your names, but which I will not share here so as not to embarrass him – I was so proud of him when I offered to give him a hint to help him with a problem, and he said, “No, thank you.” When I saw that he continued to wrestle with the problem, mistaking his answer for pride and not integrity, I offered again to give him a hint, at which point he said, “I don’t think we are allowed to have any help.” I don’t believe that his teacher would ever have known that I helped him with the problem, and of course I would not have known that I had done anything wrong, because I had just wandered into the classroom a few minutes earlier and was unaware that the students were expected to solve the problems without assistance – but this young man would have known that it was wrong to receive help from me, and it was unacceptable to him, and I am so proud of the integrity that he demonstrated in that small moment.

It is a privilege to attend a school that privileges honor, integrity, and character in the education of its students and reinforces Thomas Jefferson’s essential imperative to his nephew, which I will repeat in closing my remarks to you this morning:

“Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you. Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly.”

Devon Catsavis ’24, Winner of the 2018 Eliot Award

Respect and honor are two main parts of our Middle School Honor Code. The honor code reminds everyone in the middle school of how to treat yourself and others. Respect is treating other people and things in the school how you would treat yourself or your things. Make sure to always respect your friends’ differences and feelings throughout your day. If we all thought about each others’ feelings more often in our day, many conflicts could be avoided. Another example of showing respect would be treating your computer with care and trying not to constantly drop it or pick off all the keys. This is being respectful to your property and to the Help Desk so they are not constantly fixing problems that could also be easily avoided if we had more respect. Showing honor in the Middle School is having a higher level of respect for your classmates, teachers and the rules in school. If you are working on a project with someone else and your opinion on something is different than theirs, you each should honor each other’s opinions and come to a compromise. You should do the same thing if a teacher asks you to follow their classroom rules and expectations by honoring their rules and trying to follow them to the best of your ability. If we all remember to have respect and honor our Middle School will continue to be a great place and we’ll have an amazing year together.

Camden Miller ’24, Winner of the 2018 Eliot Award

Trust – Trust is core to our honor code. Trust is the firm belief in the reliability, strength or ability of someone or something. Whenever you sit down in a chair, like many of you are doing now, you are displaying trust. You are trusting without question that the chair is reliable. You trust the chair is strong enough to support you. You trust that the chair is able to hold you. Likewise, MICDS is built on the same idea of trust. It’s important to be able to rely on one another. It is important that we believe that as a community we have the strength of character to support one another. Lastly, it is important that we are able to trust each other to do the right thing, because it’s the right thing.

Another core value of our honor code is Responsibility. John D. Rockefeller once said, “Every right implies a responsibility, every opportunity an obligation, every possession, a duty.” As MICDS students we’ve been gifted with the opportunity to receive a great education. With this gift comes the responsibility to work hard, to do what is right and to treat each other well. Keep in mind, the root of the word “responsibility” is to make a pledge. Not only that, it means to re-pledge. As MICDS students, that means each day we re-pledge or recommit to do the right thing, just because it’s the right thing to do.

Middle School Teacher

“I will abide by the principles of trust, respect, responsibility, and honor while a student at MICDS.” These words were written by the MICDS Middle School Student Council in the 1997-1998 school year. These words are posted outside this room and on the wall outside of the Middle School Office but what do they really mean? With your indulgence, I would like to tell you about two short events in my life that might help you understand what it means to me.

My first job was working for Central Presbyterian Church, right up the road in Clayton. I had received my first check at the end of the week and as we were driving home my dad took me to a grocery store so I could cash the check. He stayed in the car and I went inside, walked up to the customer center and waited in line to cash my check. When it came to my turn the lady asked me to step aside and she waited on the next person, and the next and the next. When there was no one left she finally waited on me. She asked if this was my name and where did I get the check and did I really work for it. Finally, after more questions, she cashed the check, pushed the cash at me without saying thank you as she had said to the other customers.

I left with my money, got in the car and my dad asked what happened because I had slammed the car door when I got in the car. I said it didn’t matter and as he drove away I started to count my money…then I laughed out loud and said, “That’s what she gets.” My dad then asked me to explain and I told him that she had given me too much money. He pulled over and said we were going back to return the overage. I told him how she had treated me and that after that I should keep the money. Without a word he drove back to the store and we went back to the counter to return the money. My dad told the lady that she had made a mistake, but she said she hadn’t and raised her voice so much so that a manager came over and asked what was the problem. My dad then asked the manager to look at the check, when he did saw the check was for $108, and then my dad told me to show the manager the $180 she had given me. The manager looked at the lady and then looked at us and he said, “Thank you, sir.” Then my dad said loud enough for the lady and the manager to hear, “This was not about how she treated you, it is about who YOU are.”

I kept those words with me throughout my school years and the time I served in the military. I could stand up here and tell you lots of stories about the men and women I served with who displayed courage and honor in some very difficult times. Instead, I want to share with you the event that stands out to me, and it happened right here at MICDS.

A few years ago, I was giving my class a test and a student raised her hand. I went over to address her issue and she looked at me then immediately looked down and asked me to clarify one of the questions. I did but since I had told my students to make eye contact whenever we were talking to each other I was a little put off by her actions. As the period was about to end the same student raised her hand to ask another question and again she did not make eye contact with me. When the class was over I asked her to stay after class and when the class had left I addressed the lack of eye contact issue. When I finished she asked me to sit in her seat, and she stood where I had stood when I answered her questions. She then asked me to look up at her and when I did I saw my bulletin board that contained some of the answers to the test she was taking. I had forgotten to cover it before the test. She looked me directly in the eyes and said, “ didn’t want you to think that I was cheating.” That was who she was!

Honor is not something someone gives us,
it is who we are, it is how we chose to live our lives,
when we simply do, what is right,
just because it is right.

Jen Schuckman, Head of Middle School

As we process what we have heard today about trust, respect, responsibility and honor and plan for our community-wide signing of the Honor Code, I want to be sure that we are all clear about what this means for each and every one of us. First and foremost, let’s consider what it means to sign our name on something. It may be something simple like signing a birthday card or a thank you note. As you get older you will likely sign your driver’s license or a passport or your college letter of acceptance or a credit card application. Then you will experience the more significant life events like signing for a car or house loan, or a marriage license or a contract for your first job.

And what about the signatures to which we don’t pay much attention like accepting the terms and conditions of an app or game. Have you ever clicked on something before reading the fine print? Have you ever seen an adult scribble a signature without much thought – maybe a restaurant receipt or a permission slip?

Our names are required in countless ways and each and every signature says, “Yes, this is me and I agree to whatever is explained above my name.” No matter the level of significance, your signature (digital or otherwise) represents your acceptance of the promise and your understanding of the stakes that have been set.

So here are the terms and conditions of our community which we will accept with our signatures:

We are going to know each other and honor who each of us is in this community. This means that there is no judgment about what someone might look like or what they wear or the music they like or their abilities in the classroom or on a field. We simply honor the person in front of us.

We are also going to hold up a level of respect for one another that gives each and every person the ability to walk in the door each morning with confidence. Nothing breaks my heart more than hearing that a student doesn’t want to come to school because they are not comfortable in our community. That is not ok and it has no place in our school. This expectation of respect also extends to the individuals who you might not see every day like housekeeping, grounds or maintenance staff or technology support or the business office. By taking care of the lunchroom, the restrooms, the hallways, the grounds and our furniture and computers, you are giving the respect that is so deserved for the invisible work that is done by so many adults all around you.

We are also trusting that we will do our best and own our mistakes when we break our promises. Sometimes we have let each other down and things can get messy or sad or disappointing. But it is in those failures or mistakes that we find the lessons if we are willing to trust. I often refer to middle school as a rough draft and just as we would never turn in the rough draft of an assignment without applying the feedback and improving the work, we have to own our own shortcomings and rebuild trust if and when it is broken.

And that brings us to our collective responsibility. We own this Honor Code together – every adult and every student. No one person has a bigger or lesser share in our community promise. So hold each other to task and expect nothing less than what you give to others. We sign our name and own that responsibility together.

We know we won’t be perfect, but we will be good humans and do our best to do the right thing.