Many years ago, during my time as a junior petty officer in the Navy, our division got a new senior chief, and almost immediately, everyone in the division hated him. Yet, by the time I left there, he was my favorite chief. To this day, he still is, because of the many leadership lessons he instilled in me, mostly by example.
The base we were at had an absurd rule regarding when and where command baseball caps vs traditional naval white hats could be worn. I don't know how long the rule had actually been in place, but from at least before I got there. For the most part, the sailors most affected by the rule ignored it, as did those who should have enforced it. Everyone was happy.
Until this senior chief showed up. Almost immediately, he began requiring strict enforcement of all the rules in his division, including this absurd one. Most of us in the division were pretty understanding of the enforcement of most of the other rules, but the one about the baseball caps really, really rankled us. It didn't take long for us to hate our new senior chief over it.
After some time – probably only a couple of weeks, but it seemed like months at the time – he confessed to us that he, too, thought the rule was absurd. “Then why are you enforcing it!?!”, we practically screamed at him.
His answer was enlightening. Because sometimes the best way to deal with an absurd rule is not to complain about how absurd it is while ignoring it, but to show how absurd it is while enforcing it. That was the gist of his explanation. And with that explanation, the rest of the division got on board, and the rule began being enforced outside our division as well, to the point that no one liked our new senior chief. Not too long after that, the base commander changed the rule to a more realistic one we could all live with.
That lesson has stuck with me. I've rarely had need to use that method since, but when the story of the schoolboy disciplined for chewing his pop tart into a gun shape came about, I realized it's another great place to apply that lesson.
In case you hadn't heard the story, a 7 yr old in Maryland was suspended from school when a teacher overreacted to him chewing his pop tart into a gun shape. There has been a lot of various outraged reaction to it in the media, but it got me to thinking about how I would react if it were to happen to any of the children at my kid's school.
I've decided that my old senior chief's example is the best way to proceed. Let the school have their way, with the only response from me being “you realize you're setting a precedent with this absurdity, don't you? I will use that precedent against you in the future, and you will not like it.”
Then wait for the opportunity to arise, and because it's a school, it surely will. The teacher sends home an assignment with a map of Florida or Oklahoma on it? There's an opportunity (because those two states are as obviously as gun shaped as a pop tart can be) to storm into the school and demand that they apply equivalent disciplinary procedures to the teacher as they did to the child for sending home “images of guns.” Or show outrage at a student assignment or teacher handout that shows an image of the flag of West Virginia (which has guns upon it), or the Virginia state flag, (which could be considered worse, because it has a man standing with one foot upon the chest of a fallen (slain?) foe.)
The cool thing about being educated or just knowing how to do a little research is that you can find these things within their curriculum pretty easily. Things that should be right under a teacher's nose, that they should be aware of, but never, ever consider when they become a little too overzealous.
Situations like this highlight the problem with zero-tolerance policies, and over-zealous political correctness. But it can almost always be used against the very people applying the policies, if someone can remain calm enough to realize it. And frequently, until it's used against them, most of these types of people won't ever realize when they've crossed the line into absurdity. Indignant outrage rarely moves them, but a decent helping of common sense and critical thinking applied against them in the same manner they used almost always gets their attention.Or the attention of someone in a position to do something about them.
Never be afraid to fight absurdity with well-reasoned absurdity.
A quick footnote:
I'd like to make it clear that I'm not ranting against teachers, or school administrators here. In my experience, for every teacher or school administrator who does this, there are a hundred more whom are reasonable people, have common sense, and are good people. But given the multitude of educators that a child comes in contact with through out their school years, it's inevitable that most parents will encounter at least one like this. In most cases, another adult within the school will already be on your side, but just in case – remember, you can fight absurdity by taking it to the next level!