The Day Mattie’s Daddy Brought a Shotgun to School

At least it wasn’t cold or raining the day Mattie had to walk seven miles home from school. Still, she had to take the long walk on desolate country roads and didn’t get home till after dark. When she told her daddy, a sharecropper, she was late because the teacher had made her stay after school, he grabbed his shotgun and headed for the school to find “that sorry teacher who kept my girl from getting home on the bus and made her walk home in the dark.” 

I was that teacher and was lucky to have gone home just in time to miss getting shot. But Mattie’s daddy didn’t know the whole story.  

This is how it started….

At one of the teachers’ meetings, Mr. Abernathy, the principal, announced a new school policy. “We are having far too many unexcused absences.  Children are not bringing in notes from the parents, so we have no way of knowing if they were really sick or playing hooky. So, I’ve set a new policy. Any child who doesn’t bring a note will be sent to detention after school. Send an announcement of the policy home with the children tomorrow because this is starting next week.” 

To make the policy official, he passed out a paper detailing it. 

School policy regarding absences: 

  • A written excuse from the parents must be handed in within three days of a child’s absence. If the excuse is not brought in by the third day, the student will be kept in the detention room after school for one hour. 
  • Teachers are to send the written notice of this policy home with the students.  
  • If the child does not bring the note the second day, the teacher will send a letter home explaining that the child will be kept after school the following day if he or she doesn’t bring the  required excuse. 
  • When a child doesn’t bring in the excuse on the third day, send the child’s name to the office with your morning attendance reports. 
  • Have the child report to the cafeteria at 3 p.m. for detention. Teachers will rotate after-school detention duty. 

 The school secretary passed out the announcements we were to send to parents. 


             To ensure the safety of the students, when a child is absent, a  written excuse from a parent or guardian must be handed in within three days of the absence. If the excuse is not brought in by the third day, the student will be kept in the detention room after school for one hour. 

I didn’t see how detaining the kid was fair punishment for the parent’s failure to send a note, but I was new and the other teachers seemed okay with the rule. So I sent the notices home.

The next week, Mattie was out with the flu. I knew she had the flu. The other kids knew she had the flu. Every teacher in our section knew she had the flu. The principal probably knew it too. Even when Mattie came back to school, you could see she still looked like she had the flu. So, although it was a known fact that Mattie had the flu, she broke the rule because she didn’t have a written excuse to prove it.

There was one big problem with this school policy that was made to cover every kid alike. They weren’t all alike. The school was in a rural area. Many of the fathers were sharecroppers like their daddies and granddaddies had been. They had no education. Families lived at the poverty level, subsisting on the money from their crops that was left over after they paid the landowners.

Mattie’s parents couldn’t read or write. A lot of the parents couldn’t read or write. I knew that and couldn’t imagine how Mr. Abernathy didn’t know it too. I didn’t send in her name to the office after the third day, or the fourth, or the fifth day. I figured I couldn’t keep it up forever, and begged Mattie to “Please bring a note. Don’t you have anybody who can write it for you? You’ll have to stay after school if you don’t.”

Two more days went by, before Mr. Abernathy cornered me. “I haven’t seen an excuse from the Jones girl. If you don’t have it tomorrow, she has detention.” I told Mattie one more time, and sent another note. But the next morning, no note, so at three o’clock, Mattie went to detention. It wasn’t my day to have duty, so I left.

The next morning Mr. Abernathy was waiting for me. “It’s a good thing you weren’t here after school yesterday. Mattie’s daddy came up here—with his shotgun—looking for you. But don’t worry about it. I covered for you. I explained that this is your first year as a teacher.”

I couldn’t believe him. “What? What are you talking about? You ‘covered’ for me? I had nothing to do with it. I never wanted to keep her in at all.” Mattie’s daddy’s measures were drastic, but he had accomplished one thing. It was the last we ever heard of the new school policy.

When it comes to making rules to fit everybody, schools, like other bureaucracies, fail when they don’t see the trees for the forest. But Mr. Abernathy and his policy taught me a lesson I’ve followed ever since.

When common sense tells me a rule is crazy, I break it.

November 13, 2018