Character Building  by Booker T. Washington

Chapter 6 Have You Done Your Best

[This talk was given at the middle of the school year.]

IF you have not already done so-and I hope you have- I think that you will find this a convenient season for each one of you to stop and to consider your school-year very carefully; to consider your life in school from every point of view; to place yourselves, as it were, in the presence of your parents, or your friends at home; to place yourselves in the pres-ence of those who stand by and support this institution; to place your-selves in the presence of your teachers and of all who are in any way interested in you.

Now, suppose you were to-night sitting down by your parents' side, by their fireside, looking them in the face, or by the side of your nearest and dearest friends, those who have done the most for you, those who have stood by you most closely. Suppose you were in that position. I want to ask you to answer this question, In considering your school life in your studies, for example-during the year, thus far, have you done your best?

Have you been really honest with your parents, who have strug-gled, who have sacrificed, who have toiled for years, in ways you do not know of, in order that you might come here, and in order that you might remain here? Have you really been interested in them? Have you really been honest with your teachers? Have you been honest with those who support this institution? Have you really, in a word, in the preparation and recitation of your lessons, done your level best? Right out from your hearts, have you done your best? I fear that a great many of you, when you look your conscience squarely in the face, when you get right down to your real selves, at the bottom of your lives, must answer that you have not done your best. There have been precious minutes, there have been precious hours, that you have completely thrown away, hours for which you cannot show a single return.

Now, if you have not done your level best, right out straight from your heart, in the preparation and recitation of your lessons, and in all your work, it is not too late for you to make amends. I should be very sorry if I waited until the end of the term to remind you of this, because it would then be too late. There would be many of you with long faces, who would say, if you were reminded then, that you could have done so much better, would have been so much more honest with your parents and friends, if you had only been reminded earlier; and that in every way you would have made your lives so different from what they had been. Now, it isn't too late.

Grant, as I know that numbers of you will grant, that you have thrown away precious time, that you have been indifferent to the advice of your teachers, that you really haven't been honest with yourselves in the preparation of your lessons, that you have been careless in your recita-tions. I want you to be really honest with yourselves and say, from to-night on, “I am going to take charge of myself. I am not going to drift in this respect. I am going to row up the stream; and my life, as a school-boy or a schoolgirl, is going to be different from what it has been."

Now place yourselves again in the presence of your parents, of those who are dearest to you, and answer this question, in your work, in your industrial work here, have you done your real best? In the field and in the shop, with the plough, the trowel, the hammer, the saw, have you done your level best? Have you done your best in the sewing room and in the cooking classes? Have you justified your parents in the sacrifice of time and money which they have made in order to allow you to come here? If you haven't done your best in these respects-and many of you haven't there is still time for you to become a different man or woman. It isn't too late. You can turn yourselves completely around. Those of you who have been indifferent and slow, those of you who have been thought-less and slovenly, those of you who have tried to find out how little effort of body or mind you could put into your industrial work here,-it isn't too late for you to turn yourselves completely around in that respect, and to say that from to-night you are going to be a different man or woman.

Have you done your level best in making your surroundings what the school requires, what your school life should be, in learning how to take care of your bodies, in learning how to keep your bodies clean and pure, in the conscientious, systematic use of the tooth brush? Have you done your best? Have you been downright honest in that respect, alone? Have you used the tooth brush just because you felt it was a requirement of the school, or because you felt that you could not be clean or honest with your room-mates, that you could not be yourself in the sight of God, unless you used the tooth brush? Have you used it in the dark, as well as in the light? Have you learned that, even if your room was not going to be inspected on a certain day, it was just as important that you learn the lesson of being conscientious about keeping it in order as if you knew it was going to be inspected? Have you been careful in this respect? Have you shifted this duty, or neglected that duty? Have you thrown some task off on to your room-mates? Have you tried to "slide out" of it, or, as it were, "to get by," as the slang phrase goes, without doing really honest, straightforward work, as regards the cleanliness of your room, the improvement of it, the making of it more attractive?

Have you been really honest with yourselves and your parents, and with those who spend so much money for the support of this institution? Above all, have you been really true to your parents and to your best selves in growing in strength of character, in strength of purpose, in being downright honest? Those of you who came here, for instance, with the habit of telling falsehoods, of deceiving in one way or another; those of you who came here with the temptation, perhaps, in too many cases, overshadowing you and overpowering you, to take property which does not belong to you; have you been really honest in overcoming habits of this kind? Are you building character? Are you less willing to yield to temptation? Are you more able to overcome temptation now than you were? If you are not more able, you have not grown in this respect.

But it is not too late. If there are some of you who have been unfor-tunate enough to allow little mean habits, mean dispositions, mean acts, mean thoughts, mean words, to get the uppermost of you-in a word, if your life thus far has been a little, dried-up, narrow life, get rid of that life. Throw open your heart. Say now, "I am not going to be conquered by little, mean thoughts, words and acts any longer. Hereafter all my thoughts, all my words, all my acts, shall be large, generous, high, pure."

In a word, I want you to get hold of this idea, that you can make the future of your lives just what you want to make it. You can make it bright, happy, useful, if you learn this fundamental lesson, and stick to it while in school, or after you go away from here, that it doesn't pay any individual to do any less than his very best. It doesn't pay to be anything else but downright honest in heart. Any person who is not honest, who is not trying to do his very best in the classroom or in the shop, no matter where he may be, will find out that it does not pay in the long run. You may think it best for a little while, but permanently it does not pay any man or woman to be anything but really, downright honest, and to do his or her level best.

Now I want you to think about these things, not only here in the chapel to-night, but to-morrow in your class-rooms, and with reference to everything you touch. I want to, see you let it shine out, even at the very ends of your fingers, that you are doing your best in everything. Do this, and you will find at the end of the year that you are growing stronger, purer, and brighter, that you are making your parents and those inter-ested in you happier, and that you are preparing yourselves to do what this institution and the country expect you to do.