A hard-core disciplinarian stood in front of our class. He had been a marine drill sergeant in the Vietnam War. He had a crewcut hair style and piercing eyes. He had a master’s degree in psychology and was welcoming us as the professor of business ethics. Rumors had it that this man tolerated nothing.
He explained that he could always tell if someone cheated. He illustrated, “One time, I called a young man on the carpet. I accused him of cheating. He promised, ‘No. I didn’t.’ But I said, ‘Yes, you did.’ ‘No, I didn’t.’ ‘Yes, you did.’ He finally confessed, ‘How did you know?’ I answered, ‘The young lady you were sitting next to wrote on her test paper, ‘Don’t know the answer.’ You wrote, ‘Me neither.’”
We laughed at his story but took it to mean if anyone got caught cheating, he would flunk them out of school.
The weeks passed uneventfully until the day of mid-terms. A guy on the third row was caught cheating. Everyone held their breath as he was asked to leave and turn in his exam early. Surely he would be kicked out of the university.
To our surprise, the young man was back in class on Monday. One student raised his hand, interrupting the lecture, and said, “Mr. Jacobsen, professor, sir. This is absurd. Here you are teaching a class on ethics, you catch a student cheating and don’t suspend him. What kind of lesson are you teaching us?”
The professor replied, “Great question. I’ll answer it with a story.”
Years ago there was a little one-room schoolhouse in the mountains of California that no teacher could handle. It was a boys’ school with a student body so rough, the teachers would resign after only a few days. An inexperienced teacher applied and the director warned him about the disrespectful students. The teacher took the job anyway.
On his first day, the teacher greeted them, “Good morning, boys. I’m here because I care about you.” They yelled, “Yeah, right. You don’t even know us.” They laughed and yelled at the top of their voices.
The teacher said, “I want a good school, but I confess I don’t know how to make that happen unless you help me. The things we help create, we support. Suppose we have a few rules. You tell me what they are, and I’ll write them on the chalkboard.”
One boy said, “No stealing.” Another yelled, “On time.” Finally, they had ten rules.
“Now,” said the teacher, “a law is not good unless there is a consequence attached. What shall we do with one who breaks them?”
Big John yelled out, “Beat him across the back ten times without his coat on.”
“That’s pretty severe. Are you sure you are ready to stand by it?”
They all yelled, “Yes!”
“Alright. We will live by these rules,” the teacher said.
Two weeks later, Big John, who was the toughest of the tough, found that his lunch had been stolen. Upon inquiry, the thief was located—a hungry little fellow, only 10 years old.
“We have found the thief and he must be punished according to your rule,” the teacher ordered. “Ten stripes across the back. Vincent, come up here.”
The little boy, trembling, came up slowly with a big coat fasted up to his neck. He pleaded, “Teacher, you can lick me as hard as you like, but please, don’t take my coat off.”
“Take the coat off,” the teacher said. “You helped make the rules.”
As he unbuttoned the coat, the class saw the little guy had no shirt on and revealed his bony little crippled body.
How can I whip this child? the teacher thought. Then he thought to himself if I don’t do what I say, I’ll lose control of the class and respect of the boys. “Where is your shirt, Vincent?” the teacher asked.
“My father died and my mother is very poor,” he replied. “I have only one shirt and mom is washing it today. I wore my big brother’s coat to keep me warm.”
The teacher, with rod in hand, hesitated, then reluctantly asked Vincent to turn around. Just then Big John jumped to his feet, “Teacher, if you don’t object, I will take Vincent’s whipping for him.”
Hiding his disbelief, the teacher said, “Very well. There is a certain law that one can become a substitute for another.”
Off came Big John’s coat and after five hard strokes, the rod broke. The teacher bowed his head in his hands and thought, how can I finish this awful task.
Then he heard the class of boys sniffling and sobbing. He looked up, and what did he see? Little Vincent had reached up and hugged Big John with both arms around the neck.
“John, I’m sorry I stole your lunch but it has been two days since I had anything to eat. I was extra hungrier than usual and I didn’t think. John, I will love you until I die for taking my beating for me. I will never steal again. You are my real life hero.”
Our college professor stopped talking. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he said to our class, “My name is Vincent Jacobsen. I was that frail, crippled, hungry lad. We all make mistakes at some point in our lives and sometimes all we need is just one break to get our lives back on track. This course is on ethics and if you remember nothing else, remember that forgiveness is a powerful part of ethical behavior. God bless Big John, where he might be.”