In 1993 there was a very heated and public exchange between professional basketball players Karl Malone and Charles Barkley. Barkley’s assertion in a Nike ad that “I am not a role model” prompted Malone to write an essay for Sports Illustrated insisting that role models do not get to choose to be role models. His message to Barkley was as follows:
“Charles, you can deny being a role model all you want, but I don’t think it’s your decision to make. We don’t choose to be role models, we are chosen. Our only choice is whether to be a good role model or a bad one.”
Those of us in the educational world are all too familiar with the truth behind Malone’s words. We don’t get to choose. Our every word, action, inconsistency and ambivalence is noted and remembered by the adolescents whose lives we inhabit daily. Because this is our chosen profession, we are reminded regularly of our duty to keep this important responsibility at the forefront of our minds and our actions. As parents, you are equally if not as formally, charged with the very same responsibility. We share this awesome burden but do not often talk about it.
Our actions are THE most important things we model for our children and our students. It is NOT about what we say, it is what we do that matters. When we cut corners, lie, or simply obfuscate the truth, we set the stage for them. We give them permission. The circumstances and/or the degrees of seriousness don’t really matter. The truth is that the integrity of our actions make a difference, for better or for worse. As Malone so clearly articulated: our only choice is whether to be a good role model or a bad one.
Adolescents are hyper sensitive about the ambiguities in our messages. What value do our messages of respect have when we mock others behind their back or disrespect others when they are out of earshot? What possible lessons might kids learn about honesty when their adult role models craft stories to gain advantage in even the most mundane of circumstances (i.e. parking!). What must our students/children think if we invent things in even these insignificant moments?
If it helps us all to be better people, let me remind you that the young are always watching us and that there is a hypnotic effect to the ease of charismatic power. You are indeed role models. Let us all help each other to use this power responsibly.