Wednesday, May 3, 2017

A Lesson in Honor

In the fall of 1967, I was surprised to find myself assigned to 7B, Mrs. Bowen’s 7th grade Honors English class. June Bowen looms large in my mental pantheon of teachers of all time. A true Southern lady, she was elegant, intelligent, concise, and expectant. Theme papers every six weeks were the norm as I recall; and with every paper was the mandatory pledge- “On my honor as a gentleman, I have neither given nor received aid on this paper”. Hand written with a number two pencil and a shaky signature, that oath was a formal seal between me and Montgomery Bell for hundreds of deliverables between 1967 and 1974.
On this particular occasion at the end of class, Mrs. Bowen called for our papers. As was the norm, we twenty or so academic neophytes gathered in single file and deposited them on her desk. Feeling especially anxious, I was the last one in line when I dropped mine off. Before I could make it out the door, she said “Kirk, you forgot to sign your pledge.” Turning slowly, my reply now seems almost ‘Opie-esque’. “Mrs. Bowen, I can’t sign that pledge. My dad helped me.”
There was a silence. Looking back on it, I assume that that specific instance had not happened very often on The Hill or least often enough that it came with a standard response and protocol. I just remember how nervous I was, that and how my time at MBA, and all the time and money my dad had spent on my going there; it all flashed right before my eyes.
“Come here and sit down Kirk” Mrs. Bowen instructed. “Can you tell me what happened?” To paraphrase, when my dad got home from work each night, he would come in my room, where I was normally doing homework, and get his version of an MBA status report. The night before I had given him my theme to read, and he proceeded to spell out a few errors and the necessary corrections, not realizing at all that he was providing me aid and relief. I remember thinking after he left my room, “well now I’m in a pickle. My dad has helped me, and I’ve got that darn pledge I’m supposed to sign. I can’t sign it now. That would be lying. But what if I admit that, and don’t sign the pledge, isn’t that also being honest?” Rationalizing has many faces.
Mrs. Bowen was my Andy Griffith in that moment, non- judgmental, non- personal, and fair. She gave it some thought, concurred with my naïve but well- intended logic, recognized the moral loop-hole, and said I could do another paper but to write them on my own from then on. Twenty four hours later, I submitted my make-up.
During moments like that in life, outcomes can go in a lot of different directions. I’m thankful how this one did. And I can’t help but think that all three of us learned a lesson that day.

submitted by Kirk Abner '74