When 12-year-old Garrett Stephens reeled in a 26.5 inch catfish, he was thrilled at the prospect of winning first place in the Hooked on Fishing competition sponsored by Mountain View Middle School. Garrett’s hopes were dashed, however, when school principal Robert Ross told him that he was not eligible to win because he was a home schooler. Garrett’s mother, Amanda Stephens, said that Coach Randal Story had given permission for Garrett to fish. “Garrett was embarrassed,” she said.

The event was sponsored by the school in Mountain View, Arkansas as a part of a statewide tax-funded effort by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to help kids discover the joy of fishing and stay off drugs. The competition was held at a fishing pond near the school. Each grade of middle schoolers took turns spending an entire day fishing at the pond, starting with fifth-graders on Monday, April 30, and finishing with eighth-graders on Thursday, May 2. The school owns and maintains fishing equipment for use by students. The pond is stocked by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and is open to the public with certain restrictions.

School Custodian Jimmy Lawrence volunteers to maintain the school’s fishing equipment, and he takes care of baiting hooks, untangling lines, and other duties when students are allowed to go to the pond to fish.

Spending all day taking care of nearly 100 middle schoolers with fishing rods can be challenging. That’s why Lawrence got permission to ask Garrett, a sixth grade home schooler, to serve as a volunteer helper from 6:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. each day of the competition. Custodian Lawrence befriended Garrett at Faith Tabernacle Apostolic Church where Garrett’s father has been a pastor for eight years. Garrett seemed to be the ideal volunteer since he was available to help during school hours, he could earn community service hours, and have a little fun fishing in the warm springtime weather.

Parents of students and other family members were invited to come out for the day. The local Sonic Drive-In furnished refreshments. At the end of each day, prizes were awarded for the three largest fish.

Since Tuesday was the day for sixth-graders to fish, custodian Lawrence thought it would be nice if Garrett, a sixth-grader himself, could take a break from his volunteer duties to fish. Coach Story, a faculty member at the school who was helping with the competition, agreed to allow Garrett to fish.

Garrett was elated when, just as the competition began, he reeled in a huge 26.5 inch catfish. Garrett’s fish was measured and cataloged. He held first place all day until minutes before the awarding of prizes when school principal, Robert Ross, intervened. He explained that he had been meaning to come over and tell Garrett that because he is a home schooler he would not be eligible to win any prizes. Garrett was disappointed and embarrassed, to say the least. Garrett said the principal was concerned that allowing Garrett to win might prompt other home schoolers to want to fish also.

At the end of the day, Garrett’s fish was the largest one caught, but he didn’t win the first-place prize of a new bicycle and a gift certificate, nor did he get his picture in the local paper. He stood and watched first-prize go to someone else who caught a smaller fish. According to Garrett’s mother, Custodian Lawrence was more disappointed than Garrett. Garrett said to Lawrence, “Come on Jimmy, let’s go fishing and get this off our minds.” She said that the prizes would have been nice, but, more so, she would like for Garrett to be recognized as the one who caught the largest fish.

Even though Garrett didn’t get the bicycle, the gift certificate, or his picture in the local paper, he did get to keep the fish and bragging rights. He returned to the competition each day to fulfill his volunteer duties that totaled over 30 hours of volunteer service to the Mountain View School District.

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