Tim WhytePauline HartePatti RasmussenRichard RiouxLeon Worden

Black N Whyte

'Perfect attendance' story is a real Hey Martha

Tim Whyte · June 22, 1997

Poor Chris Clark. He walked right into a Hey Martha. And that's a dangerous place to be, especially if you're a junior high school kid whose mother leads a picket line at your school on awards night because you didn't get the perfect attendance medal.

I feel sorry for the kid, and I bet if he had it to do over again, he would have seen that Hey Martha coming and hightailed it in the opposite direction.

For the uninitiated, a Hey Martha is the most interesting kind of news story. It's not the story about the federal budget, or the city's decision to buy new buses, or the governor's welfare reform plan.

No. The Hey Martha is the kind of story that gets noticed by the average breakfast table reader who, as soon as he gets the general idea of the story, spits up his corn flakes and coffee and hollers, "Hey, Martha! You've gotta read this!"

Chris Clark's story was a Hey Martha. Here's what happened:

The 14-year-old's mother, Vickie Patterson, along with several other family members, picketed outside at Arroyo Seco Junior High School last week, protesting because Chris wasn't awarded the perfect attendance medal. It seems that, in all of his days in junior high school, he never missed a day of school -- but he did miss one class.

It happened to be a physical education class, and he missed it because of an orthodontist appointment that could be made only during school hours. And, when the school brass prepared to hand out the year-end awards, Chris was not on the "perfect attendance" list because, alas, his attendance was not "perfect," in the strictest sense of the word.

In my day, if a kid's family was up in arms about missing out on a perfect attendance medal, and all the other kids found out about it, it would have been the kind of thing that made a kid's on-campus life a living hell. From that perspective, I really feel bad for Chris Clark.

It's an interesting story, one that raises a variety of questions for contemplation around the campfire:

What defines "perfect" attendance? How important is such an award? What sort of values are we teaching kids when we lead them in a protest over being dissed by the perfect attendance gods?

The public reaction was, mostly, unsympathetic to Clark's plight. We've received a fair number of calls on Tell It to The Signal, most of them bashing Chris' mother for teaching him that, when he doesn't get what he wants and the rules don't play to his favor, he should whine about it.

Some of the criticism has been a little harsh, even taking the family to task for some grammatical errors on the picket signs, visible in a pair of photographs that accompanied our story on the protest.

The bottom line, though, is this: There's poor Chris Clark, his picture next to a Hey Martha, as he whines about not getting the perfect attendance medal.

"I thought it was unfair," he said in the story. "It was P.E. It wasn't like English or history. It's a pretty lame rule overall."

For starters, the fact that it was a P.E. class is irrelevant. It was a class. Athletics and physical education are a valid part of a child's overall education, part of what goes into creating a well-rounded person (figuratively speaking, of course).

As the calls have come in, I've sort of wrestled with this one in my mind, trying to decide whether I think Chris' mom did the right thing, taught him the right lesson. I've tried to decide if, in fact, I agree that "it's a lame rule." Whose side do I take?

Well, neither.

It is, after all, kind of cheesy to excuse kids from school for things like trips to water parks, then hold an orthodontist appointment against some hapless kid who, dental work aside, went to five classes that day and has never missed a day of school since kindergarten.

At what point in the day has a kid attended school? Apparently, at Arroyo Seco (a fine school attended by Yours Truly), that point occurs at the day's final bell, at least for purposes of "perfect attendance."

OK, I guess. It's a bit stiff, but everyone is subject to the same rules. So be it.

But that's not so much the point here. The point is, we've become a society that kicks and screams and pickets and files lawsuits over every little thing that doesn't go out way.

Honestly, I guess I can understand why something like the perfect attendance award is important to some people, but it never was to me. Sure, kids ought to go to school as often and as long as possible, but heck, everybody gets sick once in awhile. Sometimes you just need a day off to recharge the batteries. When my kid gets to be school-age, if "perfect" attendance is important to him, I'll encourage him to pursue his goal. (I suspect it won't be; I suspect he'll want me to play hooky with him, thus contributing to his delinquency....)

In any case, perfect attendance will not be as important to me as it is to Chris' mother, who commented in our story that the family sometimes takes two vehicles on vacations to ensure that none of the kids misses class. I admire their dedication, but I can't say I'll duplicate it. It's a bit scary for me.

I don't know. On one hand, Chris' mother is teaching him to stick up for himself, which is good. No one should raise their kid to roll over when they've been wronged. Sometimes, you've gotta draw a line in the sand and fight for it.

And on the other hand, is a perfect attendance medal something that's going to make or break you in the grand scheme? I think not. There are many captains of industry and quite successful people who, at one time in their lives, missed a day of school. When you see someone protest over not getting the medal, the words "get a life" can't help but cross your mind.

I felt bad about thinking that -- I really did -- because the perfect attendance medal is something that's much more important to Chris and his mother than it is to many of us. To me, it's not worth getting involved in a Hey Martha, but to someone else, maybe it is, and generally, we ought to respect that.

In the final analysis, I guess I'd rather see parents choosing a combination of the lesson Chris Clark received and another very important one:

Never be afraid to stick up for yourself -- but choose your battles wisely.

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