A few years ago I assigned my 9th grade composition students to write a 2-page essay in which they defined a word of their choice. I gave them a few days to choose a word and then asked them to write their name, the word they chose, and why those chose it on an index card I provided.

That evening, I looked over what they had written, making brief comments and indicating that their choice of word was approved. As expected (from previous experience with this assignment), words like “love”, “freedom”, “maturity”, and “sportsmanship” were common choices. One young man, however, chose the word “bravery” because both his father and his grandfather were very brave men. I commented that I looked forward to reading his definition. 

I returned the index cards the next day and explained that in their essays, they must include 3 elements: a definition of their word (without using that word in any form), an example of their word, and what their word was not.

The young man who chose “bravery” indicated in his essay that it is not, as posters and social media memes claim, being aware of the negative consequences of something or being afraid of doing something but doing it anyway. Instead, he explained, it’s being aware of or afraid of the consequences of an action but doing it anyway because it is the morally right thing to do. 

For several weeks after the assignment was completed and essays graded & returned, I reserved about 10 minutes at the end of each class session to discuss the essays written by students in that class. The day after my 2nd hour class discussed the young man’s definition of bravery, students from other classes asked if we could talk about it in their class as well (and with that young man’s permission, we did so).

At the end of the year, as I did every year, I asked my students to fill out a simple 5-question questionnaire about the class, what we had covered, etc. The last question was “What is one thing you learned or one discussion we had or one assignment we did, etc., that most impacted you?” 

Quite a few students responded that it was our discussion of bravery and the moral distinction that every class had come to agree was appropriate.

I often think of that young man, his essay, the wonderful discussions it led to, and the wisdom of those high school freshman in realizing what true bravery is . . . overcoming concerns and outright fear in order to do the right thing.

I was reminded again of this incident this past week when listening to talk radio. The commentator challenged everyone listening to stop being complacent, to stop being afraid of peer or societal pressure, to stop sitting by idly and instead stand up for what is right in some way in the coming year.

I’ve decided to accept his challenge. I hope you’ll join me!