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Excuses, Excuses….Excused: The Teacher Learns A Lesson

February 26, 2009, 10:33 pm

When I was a young faculty member, I had a comedy routine that went like this. I would cup my hand to my ear, look intent and say to a colleague, “Listen! Do you hear that?”

You would answer, “Uh — no. What?”

Me: “That soft thumping sound!”

You, listening hard: “What do you think it is?”

Me: “The sound of grandparents hitting the ground.”

I am, of course, referring to the grandparent holocaust that strikes around midterms and finals, grandparents whose sudden death causes their grandchildren to be unable to take their exams or turn in their papers. Some students have been known to lose more than one grandparent in a single semester; others seem to have more than four elderly rellies who slip in and out of comas, are sometimes miraculously healed (Praise the Lord!) or suddenly take a turn for the worse — just when we thought that paper was going to come in.

OK, I’m being mean.

And I would have to say something strange has happened to me with age, which is not just that I’m not as mean as I used to be, but that I seem to have more students who have genuinely bad, documentably awful things happen to them and to their family members. I don’t know why this is. Maybe I’m less of a cynic, having suffered my own share of bad things over the years, and I’m just noticing more. Or maybe it’s just the accumulation of years. There are students managing chronic diseases, young people who have to learn more things about their bodies by the age of twenty than I have learned in over twice that time. Students whose fathers leave Mom — in the company of their daughter’s best friend from high school. Students who are descending into madness, living inside kaleidoscope brains that make reading, thinking and speaking a nightmare. Students whose parents are diagnosed with terrible invasive diseases; or students who have a parent or a sibling who has battled cancer for over a decade and announces that s/he is giving up treatment and is ready to die. Students who have a suicide in the family. Students with a loved ones in the hands of the judicial system, or with friends who have died violent deaths at the hands of other human beings. And this is not even counting casualties and stress to students and their families from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, something that I am sure is far more visible at institutions other than Zenith.

The predominant health issue at Zenith nowadays is nothing unusual. A vile illness is going around: a nasty, juicy cold that metamorphoses into a hacking cough and/or an ear infection. Everyone has it: job candidates, students, colleagues, administrative assistants. Walk into my office presenting those symptoms, and you can get an extension on anything — guaranteed. Yesterday after class I was transformed into my visiting nurse persona, roaming around from student to student, urging them to go to the health center because I know three separate people — one adult and two students — who have been diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia in the last week. Who wants to drive a student to death’s door just to make a point about getting a paper on time? Not me, buster. I can’t even grade when I’m sick, much less write.

I have noticed, however, that sometimes the students who have the worst problems are the ones who never tell you what’s wrong if they can help it: they are the ones who grit their teeth and soldier on, taking care of personal business without making an excuse or asking for an extension. Those are the students you have to really keep your eyes peeled for. Once, about ten years ago, I demanded that a student who had handed in absolutely no work all semester, and had evaded me with increasingly transparent lies, come to office hours to explain herself. She sat down across the desk from me as I began my stern lecture about taking responsibility, the importance of trust between teacher and student, the multiple excuses — and then I noticed that she was trembling, tears sheeting down her cheeks as she sobbed quietly. “What’s the matter?” I said. She whispered something I didn’t understand. “What?” I said, now more urgently.

“I cut myself,” she said, eyes squeezed shut in shame, leaking fresh rivers of tears. She pulled her cardigan off and dropped it onto the floor, revealing hundreds of fine, white, healed scars crosshatching her forearms, biceps and shoulders, fresh razor marks sketched like capillaries over the old wounds. “I thought I could stop but I can’t.”

Moments like this have made me a gentler person, even a person who sometimes imagines the worst when actually there is nothing more or less wrong with a student that an appointment book and a weekend without partying wouldn’t fix. But it has also taught me that students who keep insisting on a family emergency that they won’t explain often aren’t fibbing. Often they have instead a fierce sense of privacy, are ashamed, or are witnesses to human pain that is far too awful to tell to a stranger — such as a teacher. Once I had a first-year student who finally stopped promising to hand work in and admitted that she was flunking out because she slept twenty or so hours a day. Depression, I thought, and sent her to the office we call Behavioral Health. Over Christmas, I got a call from the Dean’s office. My student had suddenly died, had gone to sleep one day and not woken up: it turned out she had been in liver failure, probably for over a year, and had had liver disease for far longer than that. Undiagnosed, untreated, liver disease — not the freshman blues after all. I have never forgotten this.

I have a friend of over twenty years duration who is a dean, and who is simply one of the wisest people I know when it comes to thinking about the young. I am always calling her for advice even about students she isn’t in charge of for this reason, and because I don’t always know what it means to be my better self as a teacher. I asked her why a student, who has been faced with a particularly horrific family emergency, simply disappeared rather than drop an email to explain the multiple absences and arrange for extensions. “Don’t they trust us to do the right thing in the face of something truly terrible?” I asked.

“Perhaps not,” my friend said. “Or perhaps they think that if they don’t tell anyone their lives can still be normal.”

Or perhaps we just aren’t as important in the scheme of their lives as we, perhaps unconsciously, believe we are.

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