Michael Harrison

Michael Harrison

A weeklong electronic journal.
Nov. 3 1999 10:30 PM

Michael Harrison

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I received the following e-mail this morning from one of our house masters:

Wynn Lee ordered a textbook from Chesterton Publishers posing as a faculty member. When the book came, Jeff [one of the house masters] thought that something seemed funny, so he brought it to me. I opened the package and then contacted the publisher to ask if they send out sample books to students. They said no. The book was an advanced-placement organic chemistry text.

Wynn receives a fair amount of mail addressed to both "Professor Lee" and "Doctor Lee." Seems to me this should be addressed with him.

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Wynn Lee is a shy, brilliant Indonesian boy. It is his fifth year at our school, and aside from winning last year's chess tournament and playing in the orchestra, he has kept a fairly low profile. This will be his first trip to my office.

Sometimes being a disciplinarian is like being a math teacher. When students fail to understand a problem, my job is to walk them through the steps. Consequences are like grades--they simply help to reinforce learning. I tracked down Wynn during lunch and asked him to come to my office.

"Wynn, I understand that you've been receiving textbooks from publishers by telling them that you're a faculty member. Is this true?"

"No. Well ...Yeah, I guess."

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"Why did you do this?"

"I wanted to get the books."

"So you just called up the publishers?"

"No. I was looking at books on the Internet and I saw you could get free books if you were a teacher."

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"So you lied and said you were a teacher?"

"I guess."

"Do you think that was wrong?"

"I guess so ... it seems like they have so many books that it doesn't matter."

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"If you walked into a bookstore that had hundreds of copies of a book you wanted, would it be OK to take it?"

"No. That would be stealing"

"And you weren't stealing?"

"No. These companies give their books away."

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"Who do they give them away to, Wynn?"

"Teachers."

"Why do you think they give them away?"

"So teachers will read them ... maybe they'll like them."

"Why do they want teachers to like them?"

"Maybe they think it's good if teachers talk about them?"

"Why else?"

Pause ... No answer.

"If a teacher likes a textbook, what do they do with it?"

"Use it for their class."

"And if they use it for their class, perhaps a hundred students will need to buy the book."

A light bulb goes on--he understands. Or maybe this has all been an act--I can't tell. For my purposes, it doesn't matter.

"So they give away one book and sell a hundred," Wynn says.

"Exactly."

Wynn thinks about this for a moment, and then says, "I feel guilty."

"Good. That's what you should be feeling. Even though it seems like these are big companies, it's still wrong to lie about who you are. And it still hurts them to have to spend money sending you free books. ... You didn't think you'd get caught, did you?"

"No, I guess not."

"One of the hardest things to learn in life is to do the right thing even if you think you won't get caught--even if you think nobody is looking."

"That's called integrity."

"Exactly. How did you know that, Wynn?"

"We're learning about it in morality class."

"Good. It's an important thing to learn about. Do you know what reparations are?"

"No."

"Reparations are something you do to try to make things whole, to repair or fix things when you've done something wrong. I want you to think about making reparations for lying to these publishing companies."

"OK. How?"

"First, I want you to perform service. Service to the publishing companies would be best, but this may be impossible. So you can do community service here at school. Fair?"

"OK."

"What else do you think would be good?

"Well, I guess I could pay for the books, but that would be too easy."

"Why?"

"Because it's my parent's money. I wouldn't be doing anything."

"That's honest. I want you to pay for the books anyway. I also want you to write me a morality paper. I want you to discuss the morality of what you did. Why was it wrong? What did you learn?"

"How long?"

"Three pages typed, double-spaced. On my desk Monday morning."

Wynn looks upset.

"What's the problem?"

"I will be very busy this weekend ... but I guess this is OK. It needs to be hard for me to make ... how do you say it? "

"Reparations?"

"Yes. Reparations."