The Purloined Letter
In Mrs. Munford’s WSHS English class in the 1960s, I vaguely recall reading an abridged version of “The Purloined Letter” by Edgar Allen Poe. My memory is either faulty, or Poe’s efforts did not make much of an impression on several schoolmates, whose recollections are vaguer than mine.
Nevertheless, as the title suggests, the mystery story involved an amateur French detective in the 1840s sleuthing a case involving a stolen letter and blackmail, a high crime. The setting for my purloined letter story is not as exotic as Paris. It happened at the Montier School in the 1957-1958 school year, and while not a high crime, I still consider it a misdemeanor, although one that has been long-since forgiven.
In recent years, since the advent of computers and cellphones, handwritten personal letters are a rarity, a convention of the past, and have been replaced by texting, emailing, and Facebook messaging.
These days, [boy, am I sounding like a codger] I see middle-and high school-aged kids holding cellphones between their hands, with both thumbs simultaneously punching letters on the screen to send messages lickety-split, presumably, to their boyfriends and girlfriends,
In the 1950s and 60s, texting and emailing, of course, did not exist. In fact, in Montier during the 1950s, few families had phones in their homes, and to place a call they had to go to the crossroads country store.
In a previous article I described how telephones in the country looked back then: a wooden box on the wall, with a protruding mouthpiece in the front and a hand crank on the side. If you wanted a private communication to a friend, it had to be a handwritten letter.
It was a popular fashion in those days for boys and girls to write “love” notes to one another, and the process had a particular protocol. Usually written on a sheet of notebook paper, the letter was folded longwise twice, followed with a series of horizontal folds, and ended up in an interlocking square—easily concealed in one’s hand. After all, these were intended to be private.
Typically, the notes were written at night and delivered the next day at school. Sometime in my fifth-grade year, I received such a missive and wrote a reply.
Mr. Shockley, the excellent teacher I have written about numerous times, had rules regarding deportment in his class. He kept track of infractions by placing a mark next to your name on an attendance sheet. For example, whispering to another student during class resulted in a mark. If you received five marks within a week, you got a whipping with his belt. For the record, I never witnessed one, but reliable sources assured me it had happened.
Passing notes in class was an infraction. I followed the rules and seldom got a mark, and would not consider delivering the note during class. But after he adjourned class for the day, as I was leaving the room, I handed the note to the girl. Mr. Shockley saw it, took it from the girl, and said something about violating the rule.
Obviously, I had no knowledge of the law, but his action certainly offended my sense of propriety. I thought since class was over the rule was no longer in effect. In retrospect, I could have used the services of famous Shannon County lawyer, J. Ben Searcy, because my protest fell on deaf ears.
All that night at home, I worried what punishment was in store for me. On another occasion, Mr. Shockley had threatened me with a whipping. One day during recess, he divided students into two basketball teams. Mr. Shockley played on the opposing team.
My team was winning, and each time I went in for a layup, he grabbed me and kept me from shooting. No doubt, his action was in good-natured fun, but I was competitive and wanted to win. After being corralled several times, I committed a serious error in judgment. I called him a cheater.
My accusation was a spontaneous utterance, blurted out, that bypassed any cognitive process. In other words, I didn’t think before I opened my big mouth. But I had crossed a proverbial line. Another boy made the same mistake and repeated my complaint. Mr. Shockley told us both to go inside and wait for him.
Mr. Shockley marched inside with his belt unbuckled at the waist. He had our attention. He then used a word I do not recall previously hearing—citizenship. He lectured us on the topic at some length and then went back outside leaving us to ponder the error of our ways. That day hadn’t resulted in a whipping, which gave me some hope.
The next day at school I didn’t know what to expect, but I soon found out. After drawing all the students’ attention to the incident, he tacked my letter on the bulletin board behind his desk and invited everyone to come up and read it.
I don’t remember the exact content of the letter, but I do recall that it had more mush than I wanted any of my buddies to see. And as my schoolmates perused the letter and gawked back at me, I felt the embarrassment a scofflaw confined to a public pillory in 18th century Boston might have felt. At that point, I could really have used J. Ben.
The attention spans of the students back then were apparently short, because I don’t recall the matter ever came up again after the next recess. Nor, do I recall being held up to contempt or ridicule afterwards.
In today’s world with “helicopter” parents, such an incident would result in administrative hearings and calls for reprimands or worse. [I never told my grandma because I suspected she wouldn’t have taken my side.] In my view, however, it is often a mistake to apply contemporary standards to the past.
In spite of my purloined letter, I will always maintain that Mr. Shockley was one of the finest and most caring teachers of my experience. Perhaps the event fortified me against the future public humiliation in which some drill sergeants and law professors specialized.