Extenuating Circumstances

Aug 17, 2014

Years ago, right before an end-of-the-term field trip, my son brought home a notice from his middle school. The body of the letter included the usual information: dates, cost, arrival and departure times. But, the last line contained an ominous warning.

To be honest, I was neither surprised nor horrified by that line.  By the time the poor teacher had written the missive, she had just slogged through nine months of pre-pubescent tomfoolery with her class. The exasperated woman probably was on her very last nerve. She had my utmost sympathy.  Her final words made sense.  Sort of.  Here’s what she announced:

 “Teachers reserve the right to eliminate a child due to extenuating circumstances without a refund.”

As drastic as this statement seemed, I didn’t blame the woman. After a whole school year with that rambunctious crew, it seemed perfectly natural for her to be reduced to issuing grammatically incorrect threats. Also, by reserving her right to eliminate a child or two, she was keeping her options open—a good strategy for staying sane. 

However, the phrase “extenuating circumstances” did pique my curiosity. I’d always thought of an extenuating circumstance to be a circumstance that makes an offense seem more forgivable. If the teacher were adhering to that definition, that would make her message all the more inscrutable. Exactly which pre-existing conditions would the teacher consider justification for the potential field trip shenanigans? 

Even now, thinking about this question makes my brain ache.  I believe it is similar to one of those Zen koans, a paradoxical riddle whose whole purpose is to show you that logical reasoning is utterly inadequate.  This is something I’ve already always believed deep in my heart. And my scores in the logic section of the GREs fully support that belief.

I don’t remember any information about the school trip, not the place they visited and not even the name of the teacher. Honestly, I saved only the bottom part of the note, so the details are lost forever.

However, I’m imagining this: just before that field trip, I’m sure I read aloud the menacing last line to my son and then left him to ponder its many possible meanings.

The upshot?

The teacher’s threat worked. Our son is still alive to this day. I’m assuming the child created some extenuating circumstances and thereby avoided being eliminated. Moreover, we parents wound up never needing to haggle over this non-refundable boy.  Success at all turns. All I can say is: thank goodness for small blessings.

And that teacher?  Bless her heart. Here’s to hoping that by now she’s transitioned to a stress-free retirement filled with extenuating circumstances.

Deborah Prum is author of First Kiss and Other Cautionary Tales, a collection of radio essays. You can visit her website here.