Integrity: The Moral Compass
I first recall hearing the word integrity at the age of eight. I had recently moved to a new town and was a fresh face in the elementary school’s second grade class. The cafeteria had multicolored banners hanging from the ceiling and each banner had a word printed on it in bold white letters followed by its definition. “These are our life skills,” my teacher said gesturing toward the banners, “we all need to try our hardest to follow all of the life skills in order to do our best.” A vibrant purple banner immediately caught my eye – INTEGRITY: DOING THE RIGHT THING. The year was 1998, and the world had not yet become too complex for my eight-year-old self, so doing the right thing seemed simple enough.
The rural Indiana school district my family moved to was not very diverse and my carefree childhood became a bit more complicated after starting at my new school. A group of girls in my class bullied me for being overweight and several peers ridiculed me for my race. As each day passed, I was painfully reminded by my classmates that not only was I much too large, but the color of my skin was wrong too. I was only eight years old, but I would sit at my desk and try to be as invisible as possible. I tried not to talk or raise my hand in class, and I was scared to stand up to sharpen my pencil because I did not want to cause any more attention to myself. When my schoolmates noticed me, I became the punchline to their jokes; and I just wanted to fade away so the teasing would stop.
A few months into school, the group of girls started to tease another classmate named Victoria. They mocked her for her size, whispered ugly words about her and roared with laughter as she became their new punchline. Other classmates joined in on the bullying and eventually, the group of girls had turned the entire class against Victoria. At the time, I knew the right thing to do would be to stand up for her. I never took part in the bullying, but I silently sat at my desk as the teasing continued well into the school year because I was scared and it was easier than speaking up. I was not showing integrity because as a bystander, I watched my classmates emotionally unravel another student; but after months of their torment, I was thankful to finally be invisible.
Integrity continued to be a common term throughout my entire education. In every syllabus from middle school through my university years, my educators referred to academic honesty and the importance of practicing integrity when completing schoolwork. As a new member in Alpha Sigma Alpha, I familiarized myself with the sorority’s core values and integrity immediately jumped from the page. As I contemplated the given definition, to have strong moral principles, I reminisced about the vibrant purple banner from my elementary school. As a child, integrity meant doing the right thing; but as I inched closer into adulthood, problems and their solutions became less black and white. In some instances, there were no right or wrong answers to choose; instead, the answers all reflected a different shade of gray. My sorority’s core values made integrity seem like a moral compass; a guide within my heart to help me respond accordingly in any situation; even the gray moments with no conspicuous answer.
Two years after graduating university, I moved to Chicago. The Windy City is much larger and very different from the small Indiana town where I grew up; and as time has marched on, I have become very different from how I grew up too. On a late summer evening, I had just gotten off work and boarded the red line train in the heart of downtown. The train was overflowing with people because Billy Joel was performing at Wrigley Field that night, and thousands of fans were taking the train up to the concert. I was standing with my back against the wall, facing the bustling aisle of the train when I noticed a man slip his hand into a woman’s bag. I had never before witnessed a crime and I could not believe what I was seeing. He slowly lifted some items out of her bag and without waiting for another second to pass, I shouted “Hey! Don’t take stuff out of her bag!” He immediately dropped all of the items back into her purse and the woman whipped around, pulling her bag in closely; all of the items safely back inside. The man turned to me and started yelling at me for getting involved. “You don’t even know that woman!” He hollered, “Mind your own business!”
Integrity developed into a spectrum as I broadened my experiences and the complexities of life became part of my reality. As a child, integrity was sharing my toys with others and showing kindness to peers. Throughout my education, it was studying hard and practicing academic honesty. Those were all black and white situations where the right thing to do was obvious. Alpha Sigma Alpha’s definition of integrity, to have strong moral principles, has carried me through the gray moments in life. It has given me the courage to intervene if I see someone being hurt by someone else, whether it be a bully or a pickpocket on a train. I refer to bystander moments as gray moments because there is no requirement between people, particularly strangers, to help each other in a time of need; but my moral compass tells me otherwise. There should be a social obligation where people feel compelled to help others in order to keep a balance of peace within our society. All it takes is a few seconds of big courage to show integrity and send a ripple of good into the waves of those around us. The only way to normalize it is to do it. So even when times are scary or gray, my moral compass points me in the direction to help; because in my heart I know the scary moments are when helpers are often needed most.
Ambrosia L. Maddox, ΔK