The day began where it does for so many parents and students: staring at a tailpipe, stuck in traffic. I heard the tardy bell and groaned. That was me, late for my “Principal for a Day” assignment at Toll Middle School in Glendale.

Ashen faced, head down, I shuffled into the administration offices. My 11-year-old self had voiced its lame excuse — “it was-was-was the t-t-traffic” — within 10 seconds of meeting the school's actual principal, Bill Card.

Card is clearly loved by his students, constantly sought out for a word in the halls, a smile or a simple hello. He encourages the kids, teases them and tries to set them on the right path — all before 10 a.m.

He took it easy on me, letting me slide on the usual punishment: picking up trash at snack time.

Trash duty is particularly effective, said Card, because of the social stigma. If you don't want your friends making fun of you, don't be late to class.

Being Principal for a Day is, well, exhausting. Even though the day ended at about 11:30 a.m., making it shorter than the shortest minimum day, I was beat from all I'd seen and done in a bit more than four hours. May it never be said that teachers and administrators have an easy job.

I suspect highlighting this may very well be a main reason for this tradition. You tend to side with teachers after you walk a hallway in their shoes. Here are just a few of the things I did:

After a quick hello to the assistant principals and office staff, Card and I roamed the halls to check on substitute teachers. My pockets were stuffed with keys, a radio and all other regular accouterments of your modern-day administrator. I felt like I needed a utility belt.

Card makes a habit of talking to each sub, making sure everything is going well and that they have everything they need. He also likes to be in the hallways during the passing periods, making himself visible to the students. This was a new one for me, as my memories of my middle school principal, Dr. Dunbar, were of a shadowy office-dweller who showed up at assemblies and provided detention — or worse.

After making the rounds, we dropped into Ms. Lisiewicz's science class to watch a lesson using a skeleton. We then dropped off a bunch of treats to the class that won the “Question of the Day” contest, stood in the halls during the passing period, then hustled off to Ms. Pakradouni's English class. The class, made up of English language learners, was tasked with coming up with questions for me, which they proceeded to pepper me with for the better part of an hour. Afterward, I handed out trash bags to those unfortunates unable to escape cleanup duty, signed slips testifying they had served their punishment, and hustled back to the hallway for a tardy sweep.

Now, given that I am a faux administrator, I asked Card whether my signature on the slips would have any weight.

“Won't the teacher who handed out the punishment think the student forged the signature?” I asked Card.

“Maybe,” he laughed. “Maybe the teacher will assign it to them again. It's OK. Gives them something to do.”

After snack, we headed back to Pakradouni's class, where I went through the same drill with her advanced students. Man, I'm not used to talking that much.

Somewhere in between all this, I helped the assistant principals, Matt Dalton and Narek Kassabian, discipline a habitually tardy girl, and a boy horsing around with a friend in class. I also sat in while Card gave a gentle but firm talk to kids who were failing two or more classes.

And at the end of it all, Card even gave my pretty, but temperamental, 1967 Mustang a jump when it failed to start in the school's parking lot.

The day was a lot of fun, and I want to thank the district for inviting me to be a part of it.

DAN EVANS is the editor. Reach him at (818) 637-3234 or dan.evans@latimes.com.