Sterling Silver


I’d never been tempted to steal anything. But now I was alone in my classroom with a voice prompting me to take what wasn’t mine.

It had never been hard for me to be honest. When given too much change at the market, it had been easy to refund the overpayment immediately. When I had found several large bills on the ground at an amusement park, turning the money in to lost and found had followed as a matter of course. In fact, I did not remember a time when other people’s property had been a temptation.

Except now. I was alone in my eighth-grade classroom, the students gone for the day. In my hand I held an open leather and velvet case from which shone 50 beautiful sterling silver coins, one for each of the 50 states. Carefully, I took the 31st of the miniature coins from its place on the velvet and examined it. On the front was an outline of the state, a 49er panning gold, and the state nickname (“The Golden State”). Turning the coin over, I saw the state flower (Golden Poppy) and the year of admission to the Union (1850).

Three years had passed since the principal had handed the commemorative coin set to me in his office. “Jack,” he had said, “it was your U.S. history classes more than anything else that led to our receiving a second Freedoms Foundation award and these commemorative coins. Since we already have one set of coins in the display case, why don’t you take this second set and use it in your classroom?”

And now as I cleaned out my files I had rediscovered the beautiful and valuable coins where I had put them for safekeeping—and forgotten them.

No longer was I alone in room B-16. An evil, covetous thought flashed across my mind: If after three years I had forgotten the coins, might not everyone else have forgotten them too? The principal who had given me custody of the coins had gone on to the new high school. Retirements and reassignments had removed the few others who had ever known that I had the coins.

The evil presence in the room spoke to my mind: Why not keep them?

Because they’re not mine.

But no one remembers that you have them. No one.

They’re not mine.

They certainly are yours! Didn’t the principal say that it was your efforts that resulted in their being awarded to this school?

Well, yes. But other teachers and students were involved, too.

Not as much as you were. And think of this: it was mostly for your after-school work that the award was given—after-school work for which you were never paid. By all rights these coins should be yours as payment for your after-school work.

Should be, perhaps, but aren’t. They belong to this school.

Or district. If you took them with you to your new assignment at the high school, they’d be in the same district still.

True. And I could probably make even better use of them with high school students than would be possible if the coins stayed here with eighth-graders at the junior high.

Certainly. You know that if the coins stay here they’ll probably just go into the display case—and there’s already one set there. That would be a waste.

But hold on a minute. If I haven’t already used the coins as part of my teaching, I probably wouldn’t use them in the future either. And anyway, they’re not mine.

But consider this: there’s no teacher anywhere in this district who is the coin collector you are or who’s so wacky about geography and states and all of that. No one would appreciate these coins as much as you would.

I believe that. But they’re not mine.

So who do they belong to more than you? You’re a taxpayer too, aren’t you? Can sterling silver coins belong to a building? a school? You are a trustee for all the other taxpayers who own the coins jointly. You’ll take the best possible care of the coins for everyone else.

That’s a bit farfetched, isn’t it? Whether the coins belong to the school or the district or the taxpayers, they for sure don’t belong to me.

But who would be hurt if you did take the coins? The school already has one set, and they wouldn’t even know. Neither would the taxpayers. No one would feel the slightest loss if you took them.

I would. I’ve never stolen anything in my life.

Steal? Who said steal? It’s not as if you’re breaking into a school and robbing the place. The coins were put into your hands by the principal.

Right. Because he trusted me and I won’t violate that trust.

You wouldn’t be violating a trust. The man would never know. He would never feel that you had violated his trust. And besides, he’s principal at the high school, isn’t he? You and the principal and the coins will all be together again when school starts again next September.

You’re really persistent, aren’t you? Why don’t you go bother someone else?

Am I bothering you? I’m just trying to see that you get what is rightfully yours. Have you ever seen such magnificent craftsmanship and beauty as in these coins?

They are beautiful. Someday I’ll buy a set for my own.

Are you serious? On a teacher’s salary? You’ll never own a set of sterling silver coins if you don’t take these right now.

I suppose you’re right.

And wouldn’t they look fantastic displayed in your family room next to your buffalo nickles and the European coin set?

Now you’re kidding. Do you think I could actually put a stolen coin set on display in my home? People may have forgotten that I have this set, but seeing them on display would make them remember.

Maybe they would be safer in your safe-deposit box.

I thought you were suggesting that they go to my new schoolroom for use in teaching. How would having them in a safe-deposit box promote that?

Well, it doesn’t matter much. By all rights they are your coins, and you can do what you like with your own property.

Are we going to go through that again? They’re not my coins.

All right, look at it this way. No one is perfect. The Lord won’t thrust you down for one small sin, will he? You’ve been honest all your life—so what if you do take something that’s almost yours just one time?

Just one time. No thanks. If I’m going to lose my integrity, it won’t be over something as insignificant as a commemorative coin set.

You know, don’t you, that teachers are underpaid? You get small pay for much preparation, no Christmas bonus, no stock options, no fringe benefits. These coins are in the nature of a Christmas bonus.

A Christmas bonus—in May? And anyway, I love teaching. I can’t complain about my work or my pay.

What about the tanks full of gas you’ve donated to school projects? What about the money spent out of your pocket for bulletin boards and other things? What about the hours and hours of after-school time you were never paid for? You’ve earned these coins.

Salaried people don’t punch time clocks. And anyway, I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. Now, I’m going to walk down to the office and give this set of coins to the principal.

Not yet. Think about it for a few days. There’s no need to be rash about this.

No, I’m going to go right now.

He’s probably gone home already.

I doubt it.

And how do you know he won’t just keep them for himself? He looks suspect to me.

He’s a good, decent man. And so what if he were a crook? My character isn’t determined by other people’s flaws.

Still, it wouldn’t hurt to wait a few days to turn them in, would it?

Why don’t you go away and let me work? I’ve got all these files to clean out and boxes to load and books to turn in and year-end report cards to mark and I’ve got to move all my stuff to the high school. I’m really busy; go away.

I’m glad you’ve decided to keep your coins for a few days at least. Why not take them home and show them to your wife and children? You shouldn’t miss the opportunity to use these coins to educate your children.

“That’s it. I’m going to the office with them right now!” The sound of my voice broke the stillness of the room and startled me.

“Now what am I going to do with this set of coins, Jack?” the principal grinned. “I just received a letter from Valley Forge today informing me that our school has again been chosen to receive an awards medal and another set of commemorative coins.”

As I drove home I thought of the irony of it all. What indeed would the junior high school do with three sets of commemorative coins? But then that wasn’t my problem. Unfortunately, none of the three sets was mine.

In the days that followed I was too busy to think much about the coins. Only occasionally would I feel a combination of quiet peace that I had won my silent battle—and sadness that I would not have something that I had wanted so desperately for my own.

In the morning of the final day of school the awards assembly took place. The program worked its way down through a pledge of allegiance, a message from the student-body president, a message from the principal, scholarship awards, attendance awards, and athletic awards.

As they began with the presentation of the Freedoms Foundation awards, I was concentrating more on quieting restless types from my homeroom than on what was being said. I had heard the talk twice before and was preoccupied. I saw the principal accept the awards and was about to tweak Leonard Womack’s ear, when I heard my name spoken by the principal. I noticed that everyone in the auditorium was looking at me. I had been invited to come to the stage.

I don’t recall all of what happened next. Some complimentary things were said—things about integrity, devotion to duty, excellence, and sadness that I would not be at the junior high school next fall. What I do remember well is the part where the principal placed a leather and velvet box with 50 sterling silver coins in my hand—and told me to keep it for my very own.

[photos] Photo by Michael Schoenfeld