Trip to Washington D.C., 1968
As a 60 year old teacher I try and make learning relevant by recalling real life experiences I've had, experiences my High School students can relate to. One such story I told to a student was very relevant to what was happening in real time for him. Something happened in the classroom and there were several students involved, him being one of them. Initially he told the truth, but when his peers decided to lie, not wanting to be the only one telling the truth, he chose to be complicit, which given my high opinion of him, was both surprising and disappointing.
My early attempts at getting him to tell the truth failed. While having him repeat the lie looking me in the eyes made him mighty uncomfortable, he managed to do it.
My next tact was to tell him a story about an event in my own life where my ethics had been challenged by my peer group in a way that was at once compromising. I won a free trip to Washington D.C. in 1968 while working as a newspaper delivery boy for The Quincy Patriot Ledger. In order to qualify, each paperboy had to get 19 new customers. Ronnie, our manager, took us out early evenings and weekends to canvass neighborhoods for new subscribers. There were three of us who lived in an area by the Heights Shopping Plaza in Sharon and several others from Foxboro who got into the Ronnie's delivery van and were trying to earn the free trip. We helped each other out and as a result, we all qualified by the deadline.
There were only two Chaperones for close to thirty-five boys and they had the job of making sure we all returned home from D.C. just as our parents had sent us, in one piece. The Ledger chartered a Greyhound Bus and stocked it with box lunches. Several kids were unable to hold down their food in the moving bus and their regurgitated lunches made for a long, difficult ride to D.C.. Today the trip would never have happened as having just two guys watching thirty-five 12-15 year old boys would not be an acceptable ratio. As it turned out the two Chaperones indulged themselves in adult beverages the entire time and we were pretty much on our own except when we had a scheduled group tour or a photo session. The Ledger sponsored these trips for all the good publicity it would receive as well as the many new paying customers they were adding. It was a win-win.
Back in those days paperboys delivered by bicycle, metal baskets affixed to each side of the rear wheel, rain or shine. We had kickstands on our bikes, parked them carefully, and walked the paper up to the front door, putting them in between the regular door and the storm door, careful to make sure the storm door was completely shut so it wouldn't blow open on windy days, damaging the door and sending sections of the newspaper flying across the front lawn. We collected the weekly fees ourselves and earned our tips. By having a paper route at a young age, we learned about responsibility and commitment early in life.
We were all told that while in D.C. we would have time to go to gift shops to buy souvenirs for our parents, siblings and friends. There was no shortage of stuffy, little gift shops and no shortage of tacky, over-priced collectibles engraved with "Washington D.C.". I made up my mind early that I would buy a gift for my best friend Michael and when I saw a pocket knife with silver engraving on the side, I knew immediately he would like it.
I chose the knife and while walking towards the register another paperboy said "Don't pay for it, walk out with it. Everyone's doing it". More kids nodded while they left the gift shop, unpaid souvenirs concealed in their pockets. I was caught in the moment. I had a dilemma, I was not a thief. Everything I learned in the course of my life up to that point was about honesty and the Commandment "Thou shall not steal" had been deeply embedded in my conscience at a very young age...
Feeling the pressure to conform, I hustled through the doorway with the rest of the paperboys. Once outside I was overwhelmed with a feeling of guilt. I got two city blocks away from the souvenir shop when I decided I was not a thief and nobody was going to make me one. I turned around and headed back to the gift shop.
I thought I'd get caught trying to put it back, so I took it out of my pocket quickly and laid it on the counter by the cash register. I paid for it and then caught up with my group. They laughed and teased me, but I refused to let them make me a thief. I held my moral ground and I felt very good about it, and still do.
Years later, 40 to be exact, I reconnected with Michael. After a lot of catching up, he told me he still had the pocket knife. I hadn't told him the story about how I purchased it, and so I thought it was time. In addition to being his keepsake, that pocket knife had been my savior. He loved the story and now had an even greater appreciation for the souvenir I got for him in D.C. back in 1968.
I decided to tell my student the story, the one caught in a similar dilemma, hoping he could see the lifelong effects that making a good decision can have. I told him returning to pay for the pocket knife had been an important moment in my life. I made a decision not to be a thief. I told him this was his moment, that he had an opportunity to choose not to be a liar...
He thought it over and it made sense to him. He immediately shook my hand and said he was willing to come forward and tell the truth. I was proud of him for making the right decision, just as I had many years ago.
It all worked out.