Reflections on Ishmael

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I was very surprised at how much I liked the book “Ishmael” by E.D.E.N. Southworth. We had just purchased some books from Lamplighter Publishing, and this was book of the year one year. Based on that, I decided to read it. I was not prepared for how rich the description and narrative would be. At first, with the tale of Nora and Herman, I was put off by this seemingly petty girl and the forward young heir, but was drawn into the story quickly. The development of the characters was so well done, at times I wanted to pray for them as if they actually existed and their troubles were present day!

This was an apt book for me to read, at the start of a journey into the classics. Prior to this book, I read “A Thomas Jefferson Education” by Oliver DeMille. To summarize this book quickly: classics and mentoring. It has become my goal to educate myself and stop wasting breath on so much amusement. What better character to read about, at the start of this expedition, than Ishmael Worth! There are a few qualities I would like to reflect upon, and hopefully apply to my own life.

The first quality I admired in Ishmael is his diligence. This boy took advantage of every opportunity he was given, fulfilling DeMille’s statement that only students truly educate themselves. Teacher’s may inspire, but students only learn when they apply themselves. As a child, he worked for the professor of odd jobs to get his start to education. In his dedication to protecting Mr. Middleton’s carriage from the Burghe boys, he was gifted his precious “History of America” book, of which he studied and whose characters molded Ishmael’s personality. When at Mr. Middleton’s school, he applied himself at once to his lessons, memorizing three when only assigned one. True, he did not see school as a chore, but as a love affair, but coming from nothing, he realized the value of what he had and took advantage of every opportunity. It seemed to have an avalanche effect on his life; the more he applied himself, the more he learned; the more he learned, the greater the pleasure and gratitude; and this lead again to greater application of his energy. When he goes to live with Reuben Gray, he gains access to a few law books which he reads. When he gains access to the law library of Judge Merlin, he applies himself, and even, though employed as a schoolmaster, walks to the local courthouse to observe proceedings. In the end, Ishmael has educated himself to the level that he very successfully passes the Washington bar exam.

None of this would have been possible if not for the unfailing integrity of Ishmael. Ishmael makes decisions that I would not make. He makes no compromise when compromise is both logical and not sinful. He would not accept reward for having integrity. He would not borrow money from the wallet of Mr. Middleton, found in the snow, even when he and Hannah were starving. He would rather sell the most precious item in the world, his “History of America,” rather than take any of the money. He did what was right exclusively. He saved the no-good Burghe boys at risk of his own life. He refused to take the brief of Mr. Brown, his very first of his career as a lawyer which could have “secured his future,” instead electing to represent the defendant in the case free of charge. This was his duty to God, and indeed it inspires me to strive for greater heights.

Under both these qualities runs bedrock of morality and gratitude. He read of Washington, Monroe and Putnam, and could have easily admired them from afar as great men who attained great fame. No, Ishmael did not stop there, but actively and relentlessly applied these standards to his own conduct. He applied the teachings of the Bible to his own heart and mind, and accepted nothing less than strict right action. He also gave glory to God for everything. He was thankful for a mere book to read and reread. He was thankful for the jobs he was able to perform, for the opportunity to attend Mr. Middleton’s school, and for the opportunities to study and practice law. Having come from nothing, his perspective was tuned to seeing the difference in attitudes between privilege and poverty. Even those he loved, like Mr. Middleton and Judge Merlin, he would not yield his moral compass to their counsel. Even when he became successful, he could have easily just transitioned into the complacent and ignorant morality of the rich but did not.

Ishmael is the hero of my journey into education. As I sit here, nearly forty-two years old, I have such a yearning for the classical education I never received. I sorely have desired it over the years, and at times I have pursued it. Never have I stayed the course, though, as Ishmael did. But education has be built on the foundation of morality, of truly reflecting on what is good and suffering for what is right. As I recently heard Mark Hamby state, education is built on virtue and that if you look at children that do not have a good education, it is usually because there is a lack of character. Based on my propensity for amusement, it is not a mystery why my journey has been so discontinuous. May God grant me the character of Ishmael and may I suffer to do good and right no matter the trials. May I be diligent, moral and grateful.

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