My grandmother died. I felt that one was true.
My aunt died. No way. That declaration appeared in an email on the day the final project was due. The student eventually handed in a two-paragraph paper.
My car got stuck in a snowdrift. Eh, probably.
My father had to call a tow truck for me. A corroborating detail; an authentic ring.
I got a kidney infection. That sounds legit. And painful.
I had to take my roommate to the ER. That sounds — wait a minute, the last three were from the same person.
The above are excuses for absences or missed assignments. I taught two classes, one per semester, this past year, and in only a year compiled a pretty good binder of excuses.
One was from the blithe “Graham,” who arrived one day after a string of absences. He happened to be the first to class that day, which gave me a chance to chat.
“Graham,” I said meaningfully, “I was going to contact you. You haven’t been coming lately.”
“I’m sorry,” Graham said with a genial, rueful smile, palms uplifted in a helpless gesture. “I keep sleeping through class.”
Class was at 3 p.m.
Excuses, of course, have had to change in today’s world, since the advent of the Internet has made paper assignments largely obsolete. Nevermore can a student say:
“The dog / hamster / goat/ llama ate it.”
“I left my homework at a friend’s / my aunt’s / in the car.”
“It was in my pack that got stolen. I’m going to the police station after school to get it back.”
Or, as in this fave noted by a teacher on a “10 Best Excuses For Not Doing Your Homework” blog:
“My mom still has it! I told her to hurry up.”
Today’s students must use higher-tech means than in the past. Herewith, a student tip from the same blog:
“I quickly make a Word file with nothing on it, then save it so it only works on a Mac, and then email it to the teacher or put it on a memory stick. … So then the file will not open because the school only has Windows, and I can say, ‘Oh there must be something wrong with the school’s system,’ and get an extra night.”
Last semester, I gave weekly quizzes, taken online. One day my student “Joe,” for whom attendance was an issue, did not appear, but quietly submitted his from elsewhere.
When I emailed an inquiry, he replied, “Sorry, my Internet was down yesterday so I could not send you a message. I was feeling pretty gross yesterday so I spent most of the day in bed.”
What do you reply to that?
“Joe. Your Internet couldn’t have been too down since you took the quiz! … P.S. if you tell an employer you didn’t come in because you felt gross, you will get fired.”
Some students didn’t try to be specific: “I’m not gonna be making it to class this week! Trust me, I don’t feel good with that, but things have come up.”
Another took an airy and unapologetic tack. “I went to a rock concert in L.A.”
Some students just have other things to do. My friend Michelle, also a new teacher, had a student stand up and leave in the middle of the midterm exam, saying, “I’ve got to go catch a flight.”
In others from over the years, my teacher friend Andrew recalls being told, “I pulled a hamstring in my back. I have a doctor’s note.” A writer friend, Amy, remembers her college roommate saying, “The cat got stuck in the dishwasher.” And I read of one young man reporting, “My desk caught on fire.”
But nothing has ever beat one I remember from college, the worst because it was true. Donnie, a quiet and good young man, was a math student, in the day before — by only a year or two — college students had computer access. (I wrote my 105-page honors thesis on an electric typewriter.) Donnie left his senior thesis in the trunk of his car, and his car was stolen. He had no copy. Yes, his teachers believed him, knew he had done his thesis, but still, after his classmates graduated, he had to stay at school all summer re-writing it. The trouble with even the best excuse is that you still have to do the work.
— “Femaelstrom” appears on the third Friday of each month. Alison Osius lives in Carbondale, where she is a climber, skier and magazine editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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