Paul V. Coates – Confidential File, Dec. 22, 1959
December 22, 2009 | 2:00 pm
Payola Suspected in Fourth Grade
NEWS ITEM: WESTBURY, N.Y., Dec. 21 -- Teachers here have been warned against students who try to curry favor with "Christmas payola."
Supt. of Schools Cecil I. Rice sent teachers a memorandum indicating they may only accept gifts which "represent love and respect."
The whole ugly mess first came to light one day last week. Nothing might ever have been known about it if a disgruntled fourth-grader who lost in a spelling bee hadn't sent an anonymous note to the principal.
"Ask Miss Fahrenheit," it challenged, "who brings her an apple every time there's going to be a spelldown. Aren't his initials N. F.? And doesn't that stand for Newton Figg?"
The principal read the note with deep shock. Then he laid it gingerly on his desk as though it might explode. The implication in it was terrifying. Miss Fahrenheit was a fourth-grade teacher with 32 years of unblemished service behind her. And young Figg had become something of a school legend. He consistently won every fourth-grade spelling bee. No child could stand up to him.
This serious charge of fraud, though anonymous, had to be investigated. The principal immediately called for Miss Fahrenheit. And, after being confronted with the note, she tearfully and somewhat nervously denied that she had ever supplied Newton Figg with the correct spelling in advance.
As she left the office, dabbing at her eyes with a hanky, the Figg boy was waiting to enter. He studied her closely for a moment. "You say anything?" he hissed.
"Nothing," she hissed back. The lad nodded, and walked in full of self-assurance.
"First off," he said, before the principal could say a word, "I would like to go on record that this entire procedure was uncalled for.
"Procedure," he added, "p-r-o-c-e-d-u-r-e. Procedure. That's the word I won with a week ago last Friday."
"Fine," the principal replied. "But I'm afraid I must ask you a few questions. Have you ever been given the correct spelling in advance of the spelldowns?"
"I decline to answer on the ground that the question is an insult to the reputation I have built up in this school," Newton said indignantly. "Everybody knows I can out-spell everybody. Decline. D-e-c-l-i-n-e. Decline."
"But it's true that you have been giving apples to Miss Fahrenheit, isn't it?"
Newton hesitated for just a moment. Then he replied: "Yes, it's true."
The principal sighed unhappily.
"But what's the big deal?" young Figg continued. "That sort of thing has been going on for years. Suddenly everybody makes a big tzimis out of it.
"Tzimis," he added, "t-z-i- . . . "
"Yes, yes," the principal interrupted, "But you can see how it looks. You win every spelling bee. And on the day of every spelling bee you bring the teacher an apple."
"I bring her an apple," Figg said, barely disguising a sneer, "because it represents love and respect. No strings attached."
"You brought her an apple again this morning?"
"And you won again this morning?"
"I win them all," the lad said cockily. "You know that."
"Would you," the principal asked weekly, "spell the word you won on?"
"Sure," Figg snapped. "The next to the last guy went under on ulterior. U-l-t-e-r-i-o-r. Ulterior. Then the last guy couldn't handle motive. M-o-t-i-v-e. Motive."
The principal sighed with relief. Putting his arm around the boy, he said warmly, "I should have known better, Newton. You're just one of those unique children with a positive genius for spelling. Now, if you'll just give me a written statement to the effect that you were not bribing Mrs. Fahrenheit, the matter will be closed."
Figg reached for a pen and paper. With his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth, he laboriously wrote:
"I, Newton Figg, do not decline to state that there was no ulterior motive in the procedure where I gave an appel to the teacher."