Tue 24 Nov 2009
it is nearly the end of term.
the skies grow gray, the days grow short. the exam looms.
and for students – hell, for me – dragging one’s carcass out of bed to come to class gets harder and harder.
teachers are a vast repository of entertaining if specious excuses for missed classes. we hear it all: the grandmothers who die three times a term, the mysterious “appointments” that seem to occur at the same time every second week, the belly aches that magically disappear just in time for the afflicted learner to be located lounging in a coffee shop.
i’m a bit of a hard-nose about attendance. i expect an email and a decent reason, just as if school were a job. and i notice. i have small classes, where an empty seat yawns like a missing tooth. i know everyone’s names the second week of class. there’s no hiding from me.
but they are adults, my students, at least legally, university kids far from home for the first time. some of them straggle in at noon, late, flustered, clearly having just rolled out of bed. i gaze upon them with vicious, bare-fanged envy.
some miss too many classes. the exam for our course is a repeat of the placement exam they wrote back in September; a single timed essay, its purpose to determine whether or not they can meet the demands of full-time credit courses without additional English support. if they don’t attend, they have to wait an extra couple of weeks to write it. no traditional grading scheme, not much to hold over their heads. their only real punishment is that they miss out on my delightful company and my wisdom, of course. and i miss theirs.
still, most buy in. it is an amazing fact of human nature that when treated reasonably, most people respond reasonably. i teach things they need. i make that explicit, strategic. and i am clear about my expectations without getting terribly het up when they do not meet them, particularly in the realm of attendance. oh, i give them The Look. and The Grave Talking To. I explain consequences in terms of things they actually give two shits about, like ultimately getting the heck out of our mandatory program. but i have been fifteen years a teacher. i do not get excited about their white lies, the emails that clock in three minutes after the start of class saying – again – dear Bonnie, i sick. tomorrow i will not sick.
i do not bite.
i edit these notes, sometimes, send back refined versions explaining how to craft an appropriately professional excuse for absence, but i do not get excited. i will know when they are truly slipping, endangering their term, beginning to shred under the strange, unspeakable pressure of navigating my world and their own internal lives and priorities and burdens. then i will flurry into action and do everything i can to whip & bolster & comfort them back into line, because then and only then will they allow me any real part in the process at all.
as it should be.
the fact that i expect them to come to class at all is an act of stunning hypocrisy. if my undergraduate profs had kept attendance records, i’d have had to apply to get them expunged in order to land a teaching position at any self-respecting institution.
i was once the Queen of Excuses. it started early, along about eleventh grade, when i simultaneously learned to mimic my mother’s handwriting and noticed that she left for work before i walked to school in the mornings. this happy coincidence, combined with the fact that i had English class first thing every second morning and my English teacher had a significant if unfortunate Valium habit, meant that i went back to bed a lot that year. i still like nothing better than to crawl back into bed an hour or two after rising. i do my best sleeping at about 7:53 in the morning.
i embarked on this first of my creative writing projects with enthusiasm, crafting regular notes detailing dramatic yet seemly reasons for not being in class. i made sure to keep most of them painfully normal: eye appointments, dental troubles, vague feminine complaints, flu. but i also let the purple prose of adolescence run away with me a few times: had my teacher been fully aware of who i was, i suspect he might have wondered why my mother occasionally wrote notes worded as if she’d recently escaped from Wuthering Heights. but he said nothing, poor lost man, even when i broke my own rule of no-more-than-twice-a-month and dozed through an entire week of Catcher in the Rye safe at home in my own bed, handing in notes that hinted, with the delicacy of bricks, that i’d been at exotic locales named in the book but utterly unheard of near our provincial capital: a prep school, the zoo. i stopped short of the mental institution that frames the story: i didn’t want to make my teacher feel embarrassed. still, i felt Holden Caulfield would’ve been proud.
over the years, as i gradually learned the art of intrinsic motivation, i stopped making excuses and learned to haul myself out of bed. and that was good.
but as i began collecting excuses from students instead, i realized you can tell a lot about a person by the kind of excuses they make. in delving into our psyches to validate ourselves – however speciously – to authority, we expose a lot about what we’ve been raised to think of as worthy of excuse, of forgiveness, of coddling.
all liars, after all, ultimately want to believe themselves.
the students who present with a hushed, eyebrow-raised disclosure of “stomach problems” – or better, in twenty-somethings, “tummy problems”: oh, how they blush when i ask about their diarrhea. and suddenly fifteen years falls from their faces and they are little children again, learning to keep their bodies the ultimate secret, the That Which Shall Not Be Named.
the ones who send vague notes like “i have a headache”? i call them to the mat, later, and ask, with great, head-bobbing interest, big headache? little headache? did the lights bother you? generally they blush and avoid eye contact, caught out in the act of having not bothered enough to write a decent excuse. i then teach them the word “migraine” and hopefully a lesson in being organized, intentional, and specific in all acts of writing.
i particularly enjoy the ones who describe their afflictions in detail, digging out dictionaries or Dr. Google to look up medical words. these are conscientious class-skippers, this lot, the kind of kids who generally work hard and feel guilty about their trangressions and are clearly accustomed to having someone take more than a passing interest in their health. they tend to equate severity with validity, even if they are most often found missing early morning consultations but assuring me heartily in their notes that they’ll visit the clinic and make it to class at 3pm. i once had a student recover fully from what he described as acute pancreatitis by 3 pm. i asked the class to join me in offering praise for the miracle, particularly since i’d noted their stricken classmate downing a pizza in the Student Centre only an hour past the missed appointment. alas, sarcasm is somewhat lost on intro-level ESL-speakers.
yesterday, however, i came face-to-face with an entirely new breed of excuse, one i wish i’d had the creativity to dream up all by myself. i call it Medical Excuse by Obfuscation. the email which delivered it ran like this:
Bonnie, after I ate my lunch, I feel bad with my bingy, I have to go to the washingroom every ten minues.
bingy. huh. what in the nameagod is a bingy?
do YOU know? me neither. and for once, i was afraid to ask. and so this very lovely, generally hardworking student returned to class today utterly unmolested except for a vague “you okay?” from me. and i bit my tongue, and thought, well done, dude. you got me. you foiled the Queen of Excuses.
what kind of excuses do you make?
and please assuage my guilt and tell me i’m not the only one who perfected her mother’s handwriting? (if you’re reading, Ma, forgive me. it’s all made-up, total fabrication. Munchausen’s syndrome, i’m sure. i’ll be better by 3 pm).