I was going to get fired. I discovered this at 3:00 on a Saturday morning when the phone beside my bed jolted me awake.
“Mrs. Swartz?” the voice said. “I’m calling from Madison Correctional. We have reason to believe that you have prison keys in your possession. Did you take home the prison school keys?”
When I checked my bag, I found I had. And this, I knew was a fireable offense.
“Your supervisor will see you on Monday,” the officer said when I delivered the keys to the prison twenty minutes later.
All weekend, I replayed what would happen on Monday morning when I walked into the prison school. And teaching, I was sure, wouldn’t be my main activity. I’d be signing termination papers.
Except that on Monday morning nothing happened. So I taught as usual, waiting all the while to be called from class. But my supervisor never sent for me. Neither did the captain of security. Or the warden.
Not until weeks later did I gather the courage to talk with my supervisor about the mislaid keys.
“We decided,” she said, “just to forget that happened.”
I had been handed, as golfers say, a mulligan—a second chance, a do-over.
That reprieve increased my attention to security and my loyalty to the prison school. Even more, it shaped my dealings with students. While policies and guidelines are needed, they are tools to be used, not chains that should bind.
When to stick to the rule book and when to grant a replay is not a formula. It’s an art, that requires nuanced thinking. But here are some times mulligans can bring growth:
- When the playing field isn’t level—Students who are hungry and homeless, who are worried about deportation, who have parents who never knew how to do school, who assume parenting roles for younger siblings in one-parent households, who struggle with learning challenges, who are just learning English—these students are climbing steeper slopes and can use a second chance.
- When there’s a forgivable motive behind an offense—Slugging another kid at school is never right. But there’s a difference between protecting a bullied student and being a bully.
- When there’s a chance of learning from failure—If students have no chance to improve a grade, for example, they have little incentive to examine what went wrong. But allowing guided do-overs gives students tools that will help them recover from failure throughout their lives.
- When it just seems right—I haven’t always known why I offered a mulligan. Sometimes it’s what I see in their eyes—remorse or fear or discouragement. But the longer I taught, the more replays I offered. Students are different, and some need more . . . more understanding, more time, more guidance, and more second chances.
Though my students have earned F’s, I’ve rarely seen an F motivate a student to work harder. Though I’ve issued demerits, I’ve rarely seen a demerit compel a student toward angelic behavior. But I’ve found that a merciful mulligan often restores hope.