After about one minute of listening to sound bytes from all of the morning television news programs today, I quickly flipped to a black and white rerun of “Leave It to Beaver” on a TV classics station. My children were home from school for a teacher workday, and I was startled to hear the hosts on all of the major networks graphically describing unsavory details regarding a comedian “pleasuring himself” in front of disgusted colleagues. Not alert or articulate enough to face my children with yet another conversation about sexual abuse in the entertainment industry before my morning coffee, I took the coward’s way out and let the sounds of Beaver and Wally Cleaver fill my kitchen and my 11-year-old’s ears. What I didn’t expect to confront was Beaver experiencing his own dilemma regarding the morally corrupt actions of a trusted adult.
In 1963, before I was even born, in the sixth and final season of “Leave It to Beaver,” the young suburban hero, now a teenager, takes a caddying job at a country club. Beaver receives an overwhelmingly generous tip of five dollars from Mr. Langley, a businessman who cheats on his scorecard when playing against his golfing rival in order to win a $500 bet (an impressive sounding sum of money even 50 years later). Beaver battles with his own burgeoning conscience when he realizes that he’s been paid off in order to cover up for Mr. Langley’s misconduct.
Luckily for Beaver, he has a smart and kind-hearted older brother to confide in. Wally, however, doles out some classic 20th-century wisdom. He reminds Beaver that if he goes to an authority at the golf club, Mr. Langley will most likely be expelled, which will punish the entire family. Beaver’s classmate is Mr. Langley’s son, and Beaver will anger and embarrass him. Wally points out all of the possible negative ramifications of turning in the cheater, whom morally-pure Beaver considers to be on the same level as a thief.
My son waited to eat his breakfast while I watched, transfixed, as Beaver hatched a plan. He manages to transport himself to Mr. Langley’s office downtown, politely demands an appointment with the businessman, confronts the well-respected adult about his own actions, and hands back the ill-gained five dollars he earned as hush money. Clearly ashamed, Mr. Langley explains his motivations, his harmful pride, his worry over losing $500, and, ultimately, his remorse to Beaver.
In the last few minutes of the show, Beaver helps Mr. Langley doctor another scorecard at a golf rematch, this time causing Mr. Langley to lose and return the money. All seems well that ends well, with Beaver’s pal, Gilbert (another caddy) observing, “The way I figure it, the less you have to do with adults, the better ya are.”
For hours now, I’ve been thinking about that ending. On the one hand, Mr. Langley seems to understand the magnitude of his transgression, makes atonement even in his own manipulative way, and corrects the error. His children and family are not dragged into the mud because of his malfeasance, and everyone seems to score a hole-in-one.
The concept of teshuvah or repentance in the Jewish tradition applies here. Mr. Langley has “turned” (the literal meaning of the Hebrew word, teshuvah), and if he were in this situation again, he would most likely not behave in a similar fashion. Maybe the ending of the program is a happy one?
Yet part of me bristles when watching this dated episode. Here is yet another example (fictional though it may be) of an esteemed person in a position of power using his social rank to cheat and manipulate according to his own rules. He doesn’t suffer any consequences for his dishonesty because decent individuals who understand the moral truth in this situation do not want to harm him, those closest to him, and, yes, even themselves.
If this situation took place on a modern TV show, I wonder what would have transpired? Would Wally have told Beaver to confide in his parents or a trusted teacher to get more experienced help sorting out his options? Would Beaver tell the head of the country club or even the golf rival what really occurred? What if Beaver had been fired from his job for turning in the cheater? What if Mr. Langley accused Beaver of lying and did not try to repair the damage he caused, or if Mr. Langley was a serial bettor and cheating was his best move? The ending to the show would have been different and not ended quite so sweetly. Gilbert’s wry comment, however, reminds us even half a century later that not all adults can be trusted, and that the world young people are inheriting can be morally foggy.
I asked my son what he would’ve done in Beaver’s situation.
“I really don’t know, Mom,” he answered me candidly. My avid little leaguer loves sports and detests cheaters. I don’t know if I would recommend that he copy Beaver and confront a grown man without another adult to back him up.
“You can always talk to me about this kind of tricky stuff,” I told him as I unloaded the dishwasher. “Life isn’t always so black and white,” I lectured. “Kids shouldn’t cheat, and neither should grownups.”
“I know, Mom,” he said through a giant bite of cereal, his mouth covered in milk. I turned off the TV and sat down with him. I wasn’t wearing pearls or high heels, but for just a minute, our kitchen felt a little bit like the set of “Leave It to Beaver.”