Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Best Policy

This is Mr. Weber's assembly address to JPII students on October 25, 2010.

So here’s a pretty common occurrence in high school: A student comes into class, smacking on gum. Especially if that person opens his mouth while he chews, it’s immediately obvious to the teacher (and everyone else). The teacher asks the student, rhetorically, “Are you chewing gum?” The student swallows the gum, again very obviously, and says “No”.

What’s the worst thing that might have happened to this student? “Please throw it away?” Maybe—a detention? Big deal, right? But what HAS happened, in this relatively trivial incident, is for a puny price, the student has sold out on his integrity to this teacher. He’s said, in effect, “I don’t value your trust, I don’t value how others perceive whether I am ethical or not. I am fundamentally dishonest.”

Many years ago there was a student at my other school who was frequently in trouble for disrupting class. We were a smaller school and there was not a Mr. McLaren, so I got to know this young man quite well. As frustrating as his behavior was, he had one redeeming trait: he would always admit what he had done. “Why were you sent out?” I’d ask him. “Well,” he said, “The teacher asked me three times to be quiet, but I kept talking. “ I’d get the written referral from the teacher which said “I asked him to quit talking three times, but he just continued.” He was a knucklehead, but I knew I could trust him.

One day, I received a phone call from a set of angry parents, claiming their daughter had been sexually harassed by this same young man. They demanded that he be expelled. The young lady had a perfectly clean disciplinary record. There were no eyewitnesses: this had happened in the late afternoon in our hallways, when there were no other students around. I spoke privately to the young lady, who was very specific about what happened—if it were true, the boy would certainly be expelled. But when I spoke to the boy, he denied it vehemently. “She’s mad at me because she likes me and I like some other girl,” he said. So it was he said—she said. The girl who was never in trouble vs. the boy who was always in trouble. But I told the boy, “As much as you’ve been in trouble, you’ve always been honest with me. I am going to rely on that honesty now. But if I find out later that you’ve lied—about this or about anything else, I will know that you’re not honest, that you’ve simply duped me, which will then causes me to revisit this matter and likely expel you. Do you understand?” “Yes sir,” he said, and “Thank you.”

I told the girls’ parents my decision and they were furious with me. A few months passed. I received a phone call from the father of the same young lady. He was so mad he could barely talk: “The same thing happened to our daughter by the same young man. You should have believed her the first time. “ I met with the young lady: “Where did this happen? When did it happen? What did he do?” She gave me very specific details. It was the same place as last time, with no eyewitnesses. But what she didn’t know was that between the first time and second time I had installed a video system that had taped the whole incident, and when I reviewed it, NOTHING she said was the truth. It was a complete fabrication—a complete lie. Instead of expelling the boy, I expelled the girl, much to the embarrassment of her family. Integrity matters. It matters in how people see you, and it matters in ways that we cannot possibly predict, as in the case of this young man.

So protect your reputation. It’s one of the most precious things you own. If you get into a situation and someone asks you a question you feel compelled to lie about, don’t. At the very least, simply say “I don’t feel I could answer that question truthfully, so I better not try.” At least, then, your integrity remains in tact.

In Robert Bolt’s biographical play of Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons, there’s a very powerful scene that relates to the question of truth-telling. You may remember the historical circumstances are these: Thomas More is Lord Chancellor of England, in effect second in command, under King Henry VIII, who wants a divorce from his wife Catherine so he can marry Anne Boleyn. The pope refuses to grant the divorce, which infuriates King Henry, so he breaks off the Church of England from the Catholic Church and declares himself as “supreme head of the Church of England” and demands that all of his subjects, including Thomas, take an oath to this effect. Thomas, in conscience, cannot do so, which causes him to be imprisoned, lose his title, his salary and his home. His daughter, fearing for her father’s life, tells him to say the words of the oath but mean otherwise to God in his heart. But More counters with this:

When a man takes an oath," Sir Thomas explains to his daughter "he’s holding his own self in his hands. Like water." (He cups his hands.) "And if he opens his fingers then — he needn’t hope to find himself again. "

When we tell what seem to be small lies, we lose our very selves, and once we begin losing our selves, it becomes easier and easier to tell bigger lies. There’s a joke out there about a man who asks a woman to sleep with him for a million dollars. She thinks about it and says OK. “Well, in that case, how about you sleep with me for $50?” She is outraged. “What kind of woman do you think I am?” “We’ve already established that, ma’am. Now we’re just haggling over the price.”

If you tell lies, even small ones, you are already establishing the kind of person you are. We’re just haggling over the details. Jesus said something similar:

"Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much." Luke 16:10


charlie roy said...

Great story and great words of advice.

Anonymous said...

Awesome lesson in self discipline/honesty. I am hoping that parents are reading this to their sons and daughters. It is a great way to open up dialogue with high schooler and young adults about making their word their bond even in uncomfortable situations. Sometimes this all a part of growing up.