Hardships and Character

by Rick on April 2, 2021

Your hardships are the corridors to your character (kharakter: the mark that the gods put on your soul at birth).

Bob Kniffin

In grade school Bobby Kniffin came over to my house often to play. We were good friends. Fifteen years later I met him in New York, and we went to lunch at The Brass Rail on Lexington Avenue. He worked on Madison Avenue. (Yes. He was a “Mad Man” at the time).

During this most excellent catching-up conversation, I asked him why we always played at my house and never his. He said, “I didn’t want you to come to my house. It was a chaotic, unhappy home.”

Just this year he elaborated to me in an email he labeled: “the story of my life.”

My parents moved me to New Canaan Country School from the New Canaan public schools in the fifth grade because I kept getting into trouble, and there I began to find myself. My sense of humor was my way of coping with my home situation, and it was not a problem for the teachers at NCCS. I remember the names of all of my teachers during these five years at NCCS: Mrs. Lucas, Mr. Abbey, Mr. Chase, Mr. Burns pop to mind immediately. When I said something funny they didn’t find it a distraction from their agenda, sometimes they even laughed—in fact, sometimes, they were able to incorporate it. When my classmates laughed, that was not a “discipline problem.” It was just brightening everything up with a little humor. (I can remember none of the names of the six teachers I had in the public school.)

At NCCS, I discovered theatre. Every year our class put on a play (Androcles and the Lion, A Christmas Carol, HMS Pinafore). I found myself first in drama. Maybe, that’s why my first career was in advertising. People liked my act. What’s more, I liked my act. It’s something that was not appreciated at home or in the public school. Some found success at football or ice hockey. I found my self in theatre.

So, an unhappy home doesn’t doom you, it just gives your kharakter something to work with.

Of course, I never saw the teacher recommendations that helped get me into Deerfield Academy and then into the University of Pennsylvania, but I am pretty sure they included my love of drama and my performance as a swimmer, which I developed at Deerfield, where everyone had to take a sport. I was a star at the butterfly. Butterfly! Of course. What better way to leap out of the depression of home and to rise above it. 

After college, when some of my peers were off to Vietnam and death, I was lucky enough to be a lieutenant in charge of a thirty 18- and 19-year olds in the Demilitarized Zone in Korea. Nothing like taking responsibility for others to help your kharakter find itself.

In fact, I suppose, that is why I chose to get into teaching when I changed careers again at the age of 50, after making enough money starting and selling startups from 1980 to 1995.

One of my mentors, Ken Olson, told me once: “Sure, life is full of mistakes, but a few big right decisions can cover up a myriad of small bad ones.”

 Character, Kharakter, Soul

What is your character and how do you find it? How do we nurture it in our students and our children? One mistake, one hardship after another, and a million decisions.

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