The Letter of the Law

I will never forget my 4th grade social studies teacher.

She had passed out a worksheet with four questions on it. I don’t remember any of the questions, but I do know the subject was Abraham Lincoln. I thought the instructions were to answer all four questions. That’s what I though I heard.

So that is what I did.

The next day, we all got our graded worksheets back.

Mine had a big red zero at the top.

I was confused. I was pretty sure I had answered all of the questions correctly. After class, I went up and asked her why I got zero credit.

The answer: because she had said to only answer question number 4. Not all four questions. So she gave me a zero for not following directions.

I had answered question number four correctly, by the way. But that didn’t matter. I had failed the true test.

You thought this was going to be an inspirational story of how a teacher touched the life of one of her students?

Well, she did touch my life. But not in the way she wanted to.

Ever since then I have had a deep distrust of public school teachers. I never implicitly trusted their authority ever again. If they wanted my respect, they had to earn it.

Very few did.

My default assumption has been that they are vindictive government agents of compliance and mediocrity, more concerned with test-taking and obedience than actual education.

Again, very few have ever dissuaded me from this notion.

I can count them on one hand.

Don’t be like this petty, vindictive teacher. Do not use the letter of the law to punish with impunity. The letter kills. It certainly killed any respect I had for her.

When you are dealing with your children, you should encourage them to obey the spirit of the law. If you know they have tried to do that, then the letter of the law doesn’t matter so much. Give them credit.

The point of a curfew, for example, is for the safety and well-being of the child and to ensure a father’s peace of mind. The point is not for the child to be home at an arbitrary time. A curfew was made for the child, not the child for the curfew.

Don’t be a vindictive blowhard. You are their father, not their probation officer.

On the other hand, don’t let them hide behind the letter of the law. If you tell them to apologize, and they say “I’m sorry” as if they are wielding the phrase like an axe, about to chop wood, they are not really apologizing. They have said the right words, sure. But that’s not the most important thing.

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