William Saroyan's story “The Circus” is the tale of two boys, Aram (the narrator) and Joey, who skip school one day to go help with and watch the circus. Aram actually doesn't go to the circus at first; he goes to school. He tells Joey that he has forgotten the day, but in reality, he is remembering something, the whipping Mr. Dawson gave him last year when the boys skipped school. When Joey comes to get him this time around, though, Aram scoots right out of class and heads straight to the circus.
The boys are nearly caught by Mr. Stafford, the truant officer, this time, and Aram just barely escapes (to the delight of the circus workers). The boys have their enjoyable day and evening, even knowing that they will have to face the consequences the next day. They figure that they know these consequences, but they choose to have their fun anyway. It's a toss up, but the circus is worth it.
When they get to school the next morning, their teacher sends them directly to Mr. Dawson. Mr. Stafford is in the office, too, and the boys can tell that the two men have been arguing. Apparently, Mr. Stafford wants to punish the boys with reform school this time around, but that doesn't suit Mr. Dawson, who proclaims that he does the punishing in this school. Mr. Stafford leaves in a huff.
The boys are rather surprised at what happens next. They are perfectly willing to take their punishment, although Joey tries quite hard to convince Mr. Dawson that twenty whacks will do just as well as thirty, and they even promise to moderate their howling (one must howl, of course, but they try to be polite about it). Mr. Dawson, however, insists upon thirty this time, and Aram volunteers to go first. He howls a little but not much because the whacks just don't hurt that much. Joey experiences the same thing. When it is all over and Mr. Dawson dismisses them, they feel like they should thank him, but they don't because he smiles so they understand that he knows how they feel.
The boys have learned some important lessons by their experience (as have readers). First, they learn that consequences will happen when they act up, and that they must make choices in their lives about what is most important to them and then accept what comes as a result. Second, they learn that adults are people, too, and that they understand a lot more than children think they do.