The Humanist Dilemma: Should I Tell School about Sub’s Murky Morality Tale?

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Teachable Moment Fumbled: I live in a blue state in a county with a highly rated public school system, so I don’t typically find myself shouting, “What are/aren’t they teaching these kids?!” But yesterday my son came home and told me they’d had a substitute in his fifth-grade class and that the sub had shared a story with the kids. It seems she’d recently been at a convenience store and found a pair of sunglasses someone left there. They were name-brand designer sunglasses, she told the ten- and eleven-year-olds. She needed sunglasses and figured if she turned them in to the store clerk, he’d very likely keep them for himself, so she didn’t do that. Instead, she kept the sunglasses.

“Ok, then what happened?” I asked my son. Surely there was more to the story—a lesson about ethical dilemmas, balancing one’s own desires with regard for others and ultimately deciding to do the right thing? No, that was it. That was the whole story. That’s great, I thought sarcastically, someone in a position of authority is telling students that taking something that doesn’t belong to you is acceptable if it’s something you need and want, particularly if it’s really expensive. I told my son that was the wrong thing to do, that sometimes it even happens that everyone does the right thing:  sub turns in shades; clerk puts them aside; and the person who left them entertains the optimistic notion that actions 1 and 2 might occur and returns to the store and gets their fancy sunglasses back.

But now I’m wondering if I should say something to the school as well. Am I overthinking this?

—Not the Right Lesson


Dear Lesson,

Although we had a related question in a past column, the key difference is that this time it’s a teacher in her official capacity admitting (or perhaps boasting) that she kept something valuable that didn’t belong to her, rather than making any effort to return it to the rightful owner, because she wanted it and assumed the clerk would too. Wow, what a lesson! Not only did she demonstrate a very low bar for herself, she also projected her less-than-admirable standards onto another person as a justification for her own dishonest response.

As noted in the earlier column, if you don’t trust someone else not to pocket what you found, you could hang onto it and leave contact information for the store to reach you if someone comes looking for it. That way either you will return the item if the owner materializes, or, if nothing happens, you get to keep it with a clear conscience. (Yes, the clerk could arrange for someone to falsely claim to be the owner, and you could be hoodwinked. But I prefer to believe most people tend to be honest.)

But the key question here is not only what to do if you find something, but what to do about the teacher who misguided the students. One helpful aspect of your story is that it was a substitute teacher, so you could contact the regular teacher or the principal and ask that better alternatives be presented to the class. Even if it were the regular teacher, it would be appropriate to request that the topic be revisited. As it stands, even if this had been meant just as a shooting-the-breeze anecdote rather than a model of how to behave, a teacher sharing this with the class demonstrates approval of the actions from a person who carries authority in the eyes of fifth-graders. The very fact that a substitute shared this with the class demands that another authority figure in the school make a more positive teachable moment out of it. Right now, the take-away is if you find something, keep it, because that’s what others would do.

Ideally, this example could become part of the curriculum, an exercise in “what should you do if you find something (cell phone, earphones, jewelry, money, etc.) that you would love to keep?” The discussion may cover how students would feel if they were the ones who lost the item, what they would think if they learned someone (a teacher, friend, stranger) kept their item without making any effort to find out who owned it, as well as the possibility that if they did the right thing, someone else wouldn’t and the wrong person would end up with the goody. This would make an excellent lesson in ethics, compassion, and ideal vs. practical reality. It wouldn’t even have to prescribe a specific course of action, just raise the possibilities and ramifications and let the students have a lively discussion or write essays about what they’d do in various scenarios and why.

You (and I) are not overthinking this. You should contact the school. Best case, they’ll run with your suggestion and seize the opportunity to create a resonant exercise. Worst case, they’ll decline to do anything. In that case, you can have this discussion with your child and perhaps with additional classmates or friends. You’ll feel better than if you just let it pass without speaking up, and your input will override the unfortunate message conveyed by the substitute teacher.