THE IDEA FROM the start was to get a good look at his face. It would be a thin face, hollow in the cheek and bony around the eyes and the chin would jut out. It would be a face without compassion, the face of the stern preacherman, a man who has founded his own school on the rock of his conviction and now is saying that three boys cannot attend their own graduation because they had a beer in a discotheque. They broke the rules, the face would say, they broke the rules.

But the face would not meet with me. The face turned instead to a voice on the phone and the voice on the phone said it would prefer to lay low for a while, at least until the court got another crack at the case. Already, the voice said, there had been nut calls and, of course, the calls from reporters, and the voice got the feeling that he had got his side of the story across. In the papers, he was coming across hard and mean - American Gothic, pitchfork vengeance and all. The voice would like us to understand.

The voice belongs to the Rev. John C. Macon. It is, surprisingly, not a shrill voice or a voice with a polyester edge of some trained Bible-thumper, but a soft, round voice - courteous, polite, but drug in, as they used to say, for the duration. It is a voice that means business. In another time and another context, it might say, "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." Now it says, simply, "They broke the rules."

So this is about rules. The rules of the Clinton Christian School, a fundamentalist academy, say no drinking, and all three boys, Macon said, broke that rule. For Michael A. Bongiorni, 18, the vale-dictorian, this was his second time. He was punished by the school's principal who paddled him, but for Macon that was not enough. He ordered Bongiornio and the others barred from the graduation ceremony and when the parents got an injunction forbidding this, Macon postponed the graduation altogether. There is a good chance now that it will never be held.

Those, more or less, are the facts and when I read them the first thing that came to mind was that here was a man who was going to make a punishment stick. Here was somebody who's going to stick by what he said, who could not be deterred with tears and pleas. Wonderful! There was something to admire here, something that lots of us cannot do - something, at last that I cannot do. My punishments are announced in moments of hurt or anger. I reach for the handiest punishment around. Not too long ago, for instance, I canceled our family outing to McDonald's.

Understand, you who have no children - understand that McDonald's is not just another hamburger joint. It is an experience and for my son and this is one that had been building for a week. This was going to be the day of the free sundaes. It had been promised.All the kids were going. It would be discussed the next day. The commitment was etched in stone. In blood. When it was canceled for a transgression that won't be discussed here, it came like a shock to the solar-plexus. There was a look of shock, of disbelief, of horror, and then tears came from down in the gut, tears that came up with gulps of air. Right off, I knew I was wrong. Too severe. I wanted to slap a wrist. Instead I threw a knockout punch.

Slowly I painted myself into a corner. "Pleases" started to come at me like clockwork and the look in the eyes was not something you could take for long and before I knew it, I was the wrong one - the guilty one. I made the whole thing into a matter of principle and I stood by that as long as I could until finally someone pointed out to me that the punishment did not fit the crime. We went to McDonald's.

So now I'm talking on the phone with Macon and I have this experience in mind and the only difference, of course, is that where I reacted emotionally, he has reacted rationally - with a sense of purpose. There is something about this I like, although once again the punishment does not fit the crime. The kids must be devastated - graduation, after all. One was going to be val-edictorian. How many times in your life do you get a chance to do that? The parents would be so proud. New suit and all that. Hugs for Mama. Maybe a tear or two. Forget it - canceled on account of rules infraction. Tough guy, this preacher.

No, no, Macon says It's not quite so simple. It's not just some school rules that are at stake here. This is not a matter of chewing gum or using the front door of the school or being caught in the hall without a pass. This is a matter of religious character - of religious belief. You do not drink. This is what the school is about. It would be like a rabbinical student eating pork. This is not just about rules. It is about sin, about education, and education not taking hold. It is about failure.

Macon goes on. The students know the rules and so did their parents and now they have gone to court with as dispute that should have been settled in the school. It is a matter for the school to decide. It is not fair, he says. "He tried to push me into a corner," Macon says. Right, I think. Like me and the McDonald's incident. Somehow the wrong person winds up on trial. But this is different. This is a matter of rules, not emotion.

Macon tries to go off the record, but I don't agree and the voice talks on. He talks about Bongiorni. He's talking, after all, about his senior class president. He is talking about his valedictorian. He is talking also about the valedictorian's parents. "They've been here five years," he says of them. "They sat under my preaching every Sunday. My heart's broken."

The voice did not mention the rules anymore.