"The Palace Thief" by Ethan Canin

May 27, 2020
In this story, a classics teacher at an elite prep school must interrogate his own ethics when he suspects that one of his privileged students is cheating.
I battled their indolence with discipline, their boorishness with philosophy, and the arrogance of their stations with the history of great men before them.
I taught a boy who, if not for the vengeful recriminations of the tabloids, would today have been president of the United States.
He, of course, was the son of Senator Sedgewick Hyram Bell, the West Virginia demagogue who kept horses at his residence in Washington, D.C., and had swung several southern states for Wendell Wilkie.
I first met him when I had been teaching history at St. Benedict’s for only five years, in the autumn after his father had been delivered to office on the shoulders of southern patricians frightened by the unionization of steel and mine workers.
Of course it was common for a new boy to engage his comrades thusly, but Sedgewick Bell then began to add the dangerous element of natural leadership—which was based on the physical strength of his features—to his otherwise puerile antics.
They came sheepishly before me.
The next week, I gave a quiz on the triumvirate of Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar, and he passed for the first time yet, with a C plus.
On the radio his voice was a tobacco drawl that had won him populist appeal throughout West Virginia, although his policies alone would certainly not have done so.
I was at the time in my late twenties, and although I was armed with scruples and an education, my hands trembled as I dialed his office.
St. Benedict’s lies in the bucolic, equine expanse of rural Virginia, nearer in spirit to the Carolinas than to Maryland, although the drive to Washington requires little more than an hour.
The bus followed the misty, serpentine course of the Passamic, then entered the marshlands that are now the false-brick suburbs of Washington, and at last left me downtown in the capital, where I proceeded the rest of the way on foot.
He put me in a leather seat, offered me a cigar, which I refused, and then with real or contrived wonder—perhaps he did something like this with all of his visitors—he proceeded to show me an antique sidearm that had been sent to him that morning by a constituent and that had once belonged, he said, to the coachman of Robert E. Lee.
"...when they see the effect of scientific progress through the census and the enviable network of Roman roads, how these advances led mankind away from the brutish rivalries of potentates into the two centuries of Pax Romana, then they understand the importance of character and high ideals.”
If I gave him the benefit of the doubt on his quizzes when he straddled two grades, if I began to call on him in class only for those questions I had reason to believe he could answer, then I was merely trying to encourage the nascent curiosity of a boy who, to all appearances, was struggling gamely from beneath the formidable umbra of his father.
When he looked up again, I felt that it was I who had put him in this untenable position, I who had brought a tender bud too soon into the heat, and I wondered if he would ever forgive me; but then, without warning, he smiled slightly, folded his hands, and said, “Brutus and Cassius.”
I had come to this job straight from my degree at Carleton College at the age of twenty-one, having missed enlistment due to myopia, and carrying with me the hope that I could give to my boys the more important vision that my classical studies had given to me.
I knew that a teacher who coddled them at that age would only hold them back, would keep them in the bosoms of their mothers so long that they would remain weak-minded through preparatory school and inevitably then through college.
What he did next I have thought about many times over the years, the labyrinthine wiliness of it, and I can only attribute the precociousness of his maneuvering to the bitter education he must have received at home.
What he did next I have thought about many times over the years, the labyrinthine wiliness of it, and I can only attribute the precociousness of his maneuvering to the bitter education he must have received at home.
I had liked Charles Ellerby as soon as we had met because he was a moralist of no uncertain terms, and indeed when I confided in him about Sedgewick Bell’s behavior and Mr. Woodbridge’s response, he suggested that it was my duty to circumvent our headmaster and speak directly to the boy’s father.
But perhaps the glory days of St. Benedict’s had already begun their wane, for even then, well before the large problems that beset us, no action was taken against the boy.
Although we told nobody else of his secret, the boy’s dim-witted recalcitrance soon succeeded in alienating all but the other students.
His favor among the other boys, of course, had its origin in the strength of his physical features, in the precocious evil of his manner, and in the bellowing timbre of his voice, but unfortunately such crudities are all the more impressive to a group of boys living out of sight of their parents.
Whenever one of our ranks retired or left for another school, the different factions fought tooth and nail to influence the appointment.
Although the resultant split among the faculty was an egregious one, Charles Ellerby secured the appointment, and together we were able to do what I had always dreamed of doing: We redoubled our commitment to classical education.
For several years, I discovered, he had been conducting his own internecine campaign for the position, and although I had always counted him as my ally and my friend, in the first meeting of the board he rose and spoke accusations against me.
He said that I was too old, that I had failed to change with the times, that my method of pedagogy might have been relevant forty years ago but it was not today.
As the boys in their school blazers passed around the platters of fish sticks and the bowls of sliced bread, my heart was pierced with their guileless grace.
Ellerby, on the other hand, was simply a gadfly to the passing morals of the time.
I had not even wanted it when the irascible demagogue Bell had foisted it upon me, and I had only taken it out of some vague sentiment that a pistol might eventually prove decisive.
Yet now here it stood before me in a moment of torpor.
It was well written, which I noted with pleasure, and contained no trace of rancor, which is what every teacher hopes to see in the maturation of his disagreeable students.
He gazed out over the lectern, extended his arm in my direction, and proceeded to give a nostalgic rendering of my years at the school to the audience of jacketed businessmen, parasoled ladies, students in St. Benedict's blazers, and children in church suits, who, like me, were squirming at the meretriciousness of the man.
The most poignant part of all, however, was how plainly the faces of the men still showed the eager expressiveness of the first-form boys of forty-one years ago.
His walk was firm and imbued not with the seriousness of his post, it seemed to me, but with the ease of it, so that his stride among the tables was jocular.
His laugh was voluble.
Men and women lounged on the decks and beaches and patios, sunning like seals, gorging themselves on the largesse of their host.
I knew it was my duty as a teacher to bring him clear of the moral dereliction in which I myself had been his partner, yet at the same time I felt myself adrift in the tide of my own vacillation and failure.
I knew it was my duty as a teacher to bring him clear of the moral dereliction in which I myself had been his partner, yet at the same time I felt myself adrift in the tide of my own vacillation and failure.
Then he quieted his voice again, dropped his head as though in supplication, and announced that he was running for the United States Senate.
As boy after boy stopped by my rooms to wish me well, I assiduously avoided commenting on either Sedgewick Bell's performance or on his announcement for the Senate.
From newspaper reports I gleaned that he was helped along by the power of his voice and bearing, and I could easily imagine these men turning to him. I well knew the charisma of the boy.
The crowd opened as we passed, and the miners in their ignorance and jubilation were reaching to shake my hand. This was indeed a heady feeling.
Nonetheless, I only wish we could have talked more than we actually did. But I am afraid that there must always be a reticence between a teacher and his student.
I tried to bring myself to broach the subject of Sedgewick Bell's history, but here again I was aware that a teacher does not discuss one boy with another.

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