The Collegiate Laws of Life Essay Contest asked Penn State students to explore ethical values and intercultural issues, and their talent for expressing their views in writing. Nicole D’Amico, ’22 Paterno Fellow and Schreyer Scholar in sociology and international politics, won Honorable Mention for her essay, “An Unconventional Perspective: Reevaluating an Honorable Life” in response to the prompt, “What does it mean to live a life with honor(s)?”
“An Unconventional Perspective: Reevaluating an Honorable Life”
When I first began brainstorming what it meant to live a life of “honor,” I was at a loss. The amount of interpretations of the word “honor” intimidated me: I thought of Memorial Day, Schreyer Honors College, and even a court judge. Explanations of these undoubtedly describe people who do live lives of honor, but I believe a life of honor goes deeper than just actions. Rather, living a life of honor must be determined by your personal definition of what is “honorable”– whether or not those actions will be supported by peers depends on current societal norms. That being said, it is reasonable to assume that prisoners are not immediately thought of as living honorable lives, yet they are exactly the people I believe live lives of honor.
During my winter break 2020, I participated in a Penn State Alternative Break (PSAB) program in Columbia, South Carolina. While there, I, along with ten others, spent our time mentoring 23 boys in a juvenile detention center ranging from ages 14-17. We shared some personal experiences, such as our majors, jobs, and interests, but really tried to focus our attention on the boys. It wasn’t long before we realized a crucial point: these “delinquents” were just children who needed to tell their stories.
While playing (and losing) chess, spades, and ping-pong, I heard many of those stories. I listened as one boy explained that after he lost his home to hurricane damage, the only way he felt he could help his mother out was to sell marijuana. I heard stories of absent parents, pill-popping parents, abusive parents. I listened as boys listed crimes they had committed to end up in the system. I listened as boys described public defenders failing to show up to court; boys purposely staying in the system for a warm place to stay and food to eat; I heard stories I couldn’t have even imagined at their ages, let alone live through them.
Though I knew the crimes these boys had committed, I couldn’t help but remember how much more those boys were than their crimes. They were smart, funny, intelligent. They were passionate about welding, hunting, and rapping. They loved basketball, football, and kickball. They missed their families, their pets, and even things like Popeyes chicken. When we came to the detention center, I fully expected the boys to reject us. After all, what was the difference between us and any other person from the outside? Instead, the boys welcomed us into their “home.” By the end of the week, everyone was hugging, crying, and giving last minute words of advice.
The vast majority of the boys have experienced financial difficulties at home. Additionally, about 2/3 of those boys have some form of learning disability. Unfortunately for people in socio-economic situations such as these, it is common for people to end up involved in the system. It is even more difficult to leave the system later due to the previously mentioned financial stresses on the kids. That being said, it is an unfortunate, yet fair, assumption that many of those boys will eventually end up in the system as adults. After speaking to the boys about their futures, I knew they would at least try to honor the promises made to us—that they would get real jobs, go to school, stay away from the wrong crowd—anything to stay out of jail.
After spending the week at the detention center, I realized an honorable life can’t be easily defined. Where most people might see a man in military uniform, I now see a kid attempting to help his struggling mother pay the bills in the easiest way possible. I see a kid destined for a group home stay relentlessly optimistic about his opportunities. I see kids with wrongly extended sentences explaining to their parents why they won’t be getting out in May, yet still leaving the office with determined grins.
I will never know if those boys will honor what they said to us. Each and every one of them could have been lying to us, saying only what they knew we wanted to hear. But I prefer to view this in a more optimistic way. To me, honor is a double-edged sword: a soldier saves the lives of his fellow men, but ends up murdering potential innocents. A doctor stays late to care for his patients, but at home, her children miss their mother. A boy helps his mother pays the bills, but the money was obtained illegally. Does this mean his actions are any less honorable than anyone else? How does one measure “honor” when you understand the consequences related to living an “honorable” life? I’m not sure I’ll ever know for sure what it means to live a life of honor, but I know I have witnessed people doing honorable things in unconventional ways.