Professor Boynton was hardly qualified to be a professor of ethics. He received his professorship by being unethical as an inside Wall Street stock trader. Those on the board reasoned who better to teach ethics than one who has broken all the rules and now sees the error of his waywardness.
He was found amusing for the most part and even at times arrogant as if he alone was now the bastion of what is ethical.
In time the class became poorly attended. Most were there, in the beginning, to hear how the master of Wall Street spun his magical web of deceit and duplicity and to at least mention sometime in the future they attended his class.
The day came. It was a long-winded lecture not about ethics, but how brilliant he was when he asked the question: “Your home is on fire. Assume all animals are safe. What did you grab? Write it now on a piece of paper, sign it, and pass it forward”
Boynton collected the papers. He stood at the lectern and cleared his throat as he arranged them. He read the possession and name one after one. “Computer, Allison Trumbull; Photo box, William Grabowski; Jewelry box, Megan Hanthorn, Checkbook, Burton Henshel – and so it went on as each student nervously awaited their paper to be read.
Emerson knew when he got to his paper. Boynton sat it aside and continued reading the others.
“Mr. Emerson,” Boynton said. “Your paper is blank.”
“Except for my name, sir,” Emerson said.
“My clear instruction were…”
“I know what they were,” Emerson said.
“Than why didn’t you write something?” Boynton said.
“I did,” Emerson said. “My name.”
“Mr. Emerson!” Boynton said firmly. “What did you grab?”
“Nothing,” Emerson said.
“For the purposes of this exercise you grabbed something,” Boynton said with his jaw tightened. “Tell me what it was?”
“My life was enough, sir,” Emerson said. “I would not surrender my life for computers, pictures, checkbooks, strong boxes, or Fluffy the cat. That is final.”
“The idea is to take what is most precious to you,” Boynton said. “If you don’t choose something in order to participate I will be forced to grade you accordingly. What now say you, Mr. Emerson?”
“I feel sorry for you, sir,” Emerson said. “A man who has sold his soul to retrieve what was in a burning house and still has not learned anything from it.”
Boynton looked scornfully at Emerson. “Tomorrow I will pose another question. Emerson, I shall give you a chance to redeem yourself.”
The next day there was yet another self-absorbed dissertation by Boynton about his brilliance on how he out-smarted investigators and other savvy investment experts. To Emerson, it seemed clear he had little remorse but viewed his professorship as a way to earn an early release from prison.
“Recall yesterday,” Boynton said. “You were to remove one item from a burning house. Mr. Emerson refused to participate, although he might challenge my conclusion. Today, now that you have had time to consider other possibilities, what item did you not take that you wished you would have taken? Write it down immediately, sign it, and pass it forward.”
Boynton collected all the papers and as he did the previous day and began to read them to the class. And as in the previous day, he sat Emerson’s paper aside and finished the list, some of which were quite humorous and elicited some laughter from Boynton and the class.
After completing he held Emerson’s signed paper again to the class. “Blank!” Boynton said. “The man has nothing worth retrieving. What say you, Emerson.”
“Sir, I know you think it impertinent of me,” Emerson said. “But I truly could not come up with anything and as I speak right now nothing comes to mind.”
“Think, Emerson!” Boynton said. “There must be something that you might even remotely wished you would have saved.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Emerson said. “I know this is frustrating to you, but there is nothing I would risk my life for to retrieve from a burning house.”
“Don’t you place value on anything?” Boynton said.
“I suppose I do, sir,” Emerson said. “But I can’t imagine running from a house with anything, but my life and never regretting that I didn’t stop to take something else with me.”
“Yesterday you said I had sold my soul to return to that burning house,” Boynton said. “Is that so?”
“I’m sorry for saying that, sir,” Emerson said. “I was rash.”
“Than we do make rash judgments in the heat of the moment, right Mr. Emerson?” Boynton said.
“Yes, sir,” Emerson said. “We all have possessions and a house of fire that we are willing to run headlong into whether physical or just a trait. I suppose mine is speaking thoughtlessly.”
“Ethics and character are pure,” Boynton said. “They know no bounds. Ethics and character can be challenged by things or thoughts. Thoughts become things. Do not allow your thoughts to become things nor your things to become thoughts. Because of things your thoughts can become perverse and twisted. Mr. Emerson is on the right track. Everyone has displayed a weakness; what would you risk your life for and what do you regret not risking your life for. Many think I‘m not worthy to teach this class, but I do know the harm I‘ve caused and I will never run into a burning house for anything, nor will I speak without purpose.”
Boynton went on to relate what was at the root of his scandalous life. “Greed, greed for things, power, prestige, and wealth. You think those things will make you better and purer than others. They corrupt.”
After the lecture, Emerson approached Boynton.
“What have you learned, Mr. Emerson?” Boynton said.
“Everyone has a burning house and things they willing to run back inside to save,” Emerson said.
“Ethics and character are no more than the Golden Rule,” Boynton said. “Treat others the way you want to be treated and think in the same way. Protect your thoughts, young Emerson. Now there’s something worth running into a burning house for.”
“I think I have misjudged you,” Emerson said, “along with many others.”
“Sometimes we run into our ideas and beliefs with all the conviction of saving something precious only to find we become singed or in my case severely charred,” Boynton chuckled.
“Thank you, sir,” Emerson said.
“Be decent, kind, honest and thoughtful in all things, Mr. Emerson.”