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“What Did Gary Do This Time?”

“The thing that Gary has done ‘this time’ sounds pretty serious, and I was wondering if you could tell me what exactly it is he has done."Hello, Gary's mom? This is Mr. Strohacker. I'm sorry to call you at work. How are you doing tod... 'This time?' Oh, yes, ‘What did Gary do this time?’ Actually, I was hoping you could tell me.”

It appears that whatever Gary has done “this time” has resulted in me not allowing him to take part in the fall outdoor education experience with his sixth-grade class next week. Gary's classmates are pretty upset with me over his punishment. And admittedly, while it might be easier on his teacher if Gary was not going along for outdoor education, even she is concerned about the severity of this punishment. She, too, asked me what Gary had done...this time. And the other parents have shared concerns too. In fact, a few of them have called and are very troubled over my, uhhh...decision to not allow Gary to attend outdoor education with his class.

Anyway, the thing that Gary has done “this time” sounds pretty serious, and I was wondering if you could tell me what exactly it is he has done. “This time.” I mean, why didn't I just suspend him from school immediately instead of taking outdoor education away from him next week? Or why didn't I just have him report to school, sit with me, and do schoolwork? No, no, no, I appreciate you agreeing with that punishment too, but no, I don't want Gary to sit with me and do schoolwork while his class is at the camp next week.

boy not on busGary's mom apologized. She didn't know Gary was going to tell everyone that I was punishing him by not allowing him to participate in outdoor education. They had discussed things at home and decided that Gary would tell his classmates that he couldn't participate in outdoor education because he had gotten into trouble. Mom just assumed that Gary would tell everyone that he was in trouble at home. However, Gary apparently felt it would be more believable to his classmates that I was the one punishing him rather than his parents. He was probably right.

Gary was a quirky but likeable kid who got into a fair amount of trouble in school. Poor study habits, a slight speech problem, short attention span, a visual learner (he once brought part of his dad's “anatomy library” to school), occasional language problems (foul language), didn't always get his homework done. But Gary was also an entrepreneur—it was a long bus ride to school, and he had gotten into trouble once for re-selling candy on the bus at a 100 percent mark-up. And Gary was a bed wetter. Gary was afraid to be gone overnight for two nights at the outdoor education camp. Bed wetting and being afraid did not fit the image Gary tried to foster among his classmates.

Disclaimer: Sometimes two wrongs can make something right, but I do not advise any young teachers or principals out there to do what I did. After discussing the situation with Gary's parents, I decided to back off my punishment. Yes, I compromised. Gary could participate in outdoor education, but given the severity of his still undisclosed transgression, there was no way that I could allow him to stay overnight. Gary's parents agreed to make a few calls to reassure other parents that I was indeed being just, fair, compassionate, forgiving, and that they totally backed my original punishment as well as my reconsideration of the situation.

For a dozen reasons this was absolutely the wrong thing to do. But for Gary it was the right thing to do at the time. The other wrong? While Gary's father could pick him up every day from camp after supper, they had no way of getting Gary out there in the morning. So Gary rode the bus to school every morning, and I then drove him out to camp and stayed a while “to make sure he behaved.” New principals (and old principals too)—don't ever do that. I was 35 years younger and 35 years dumber when I did this.

For a dozen reasons this was absolutely the wrong thing to do. But for Gary it was the right thing to do at the time.

Chuck Strohacker retired at the end of the 2014–2015 school year after serving 40 years in the Michigan District, 37 of those years as a principal. He and his wife, Diane, live in retirement in St. Joseph, Mich.

Illustration adapted from iStock/CSA images and DmitryMo.