(Jeff Jacoby writes an annual column in the form of a letter to his son Caleb.)
My beloved Caleb,
There was an awful story in the paper a few days ago.
"A 16-year-old Brighton High School student," it began, "has been charged with slashing a 14-year-old girl's face with a razor blade in a Dorchester park, leaving a gash that required more than 100 stitches to close." The story was on the front page of the metro section, along with a large photograph of the 14-year-old. Her face is now disfigured by an angry red scar stretching from her forehead to her lip. She said that she and some of her friends had been challenged to a fight by another group of girls, and had been told that if they didn't show up, the other girls would find them and beat them on the street.
I made a point of showing you that story so we could talk about it. I asked you to imagine what it must be like to attend the schools these girls go to, or to have to worry about the things that must constantly be on their minds. The story quoted the 14-year-old as saying she "believes girls in the city these days must assemble a cadre of friends at a young age to back them up or risk getting more seriously injured or even killed. And she fears being labeled a snitch for identifying the girl who slashed her face."
Such violence and intimidation are far removed from anything you've ever experienced, Caleb. But you are no longer too young to know that many other children are not so fortunate -- including some in your own backyard. When we talked about that news story, I told you that safety is one of the reasons Mama and I send you to the Hebrew Academy -- a religious day school -- instead of public school. You've never seen a fistfight, never mind a gang brawl with razor blades. When you first read the story, you weren't even sure what a razor blade was.
But it isn't metal detectors or security guards that makes your school safe. It isn't a zero-tolerance policy on weapons, or penalties for fighting. It's an emphasis on values and character that began on the first day of school, and that your teachers and parents treat as no less important than academics. As a 3-year-old, you would come home from nursery singing songs based on the Bible stories you were learning -- Abraham's hospitality, Rebecca's kindness to strangers. Now as a 9-year-old, you come home with monthly "midos sheets" meant to reinforce good character -- midos (or midot) is Hebrew for character traits -- by having one of your parents initial the page each time you demonstrate the particular virtue being emphasized that month: cheerfulness, gratitude, kindness to others.
Does emphasizing character in this way ensure that you'll never be involved in violent or criminal deeds? Will it guarantee that you never treat another person with cruelty or malice? Can your teachers or your parents know for a fact that you'll never slash anyone's face with a razor? Unfortunately, there are no guarantees. How you turn out will depend, ultimately, on how you choose to live. The most your parents and teachers can do is equip you to make the right choice.
So we work at it, always keeping an eye out for ways to reinforce the better angels of your nature. When you brought home your report card in December, I wasn't thrilled with the grades you had gotten in behavior, self-control, and respect for teachers and peers. Which is why I offered you an incentive: If on your next report card all your behavior marks went up, you would be rewarded with one of the I Spy you like so much. Three weeks ago your second report card came home, and what do you know? Your conduct and character had improved across the board. Way to go!
Of course Mama and I care about your progress in English and science and religious studies, too. Sure, we want you to grow up to be good at math. But it's even more important that you grow up to be a mensch.
It's a message I try to reinforce whenever I can. After every meal, I tell you constantly, make sure to thank the person who prepared it -- and that includes the "kitchen ladies" at school. When you play with your brother, you're not allowed to torment him -- kindness and courtesy aren't only for outsiders. "Make me proud of you," I say each morning when I drop you off at school -- a daily reminder that while your parents' love is automatic, their admiration is something you must earn.
At 9, you're off to a great start, Caleb -- bright, energetic, inquisitive, articulate. Who knows what great things await you? Just remember: Whatever else you grow up to be, make sure to be a mensch.
All my love,
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)