Parents mean well when they call professors to offer excuses, but they end up revealing more than they intend.
In the decade I’ve spent teaching here at the community college, I have had three mothers of students and another student’s wife call my office. They were hoping I’d review the standing of their son or husband and believed—in two cases with quite a bit of hubris—they could persuade me to change grades.
It’s actually illegal for me to discuss a student’s standing or academic record with anyone besides the student or, in certain circumstances, a colleague or Dean. College students are adults, and grades represent a privacy issue. Laws aside, I’d have dropped a class in shame if my mother had called one of my professors to negotiate a grade. My wife? It would never occur to her to do something like this.
The most recent call came last week. It is among the most peculiar experiences I’ve had in my teaching career.
The student’s mom had obviously read my syllabus—which was more than her son had managed—because she knew when I’d be sitting at my desk. She introduced herself and began speeding through incoherent ramble, now in a voice begging for pity, able to shift on a dime to a very serious nasal tone.
There were many things she claimed I had to know. A great many important things. She spoke so quickly that I felt all the important things rattling over me, as if I were standing during an earthquake in a narrow pantry stocked with forks and spoons.
Her son had missed class. He had been arrested.
It wasn’t his fault. No. It was all his sister’s fault.
His sister had called the police. She’s older. She did it because her brother had hit her. But God’s truth was that he had not hit anyone. He had only been provoked to push her. The young woman stumbled backwards into a plant, and the ceramic pot had fallen over. So there was a big mess to make things look really serious.
She said her son was shy. Too shy to talk about any of this. He would never tell me the truth. So he asked her to call me.
But ma’am, I said.
No, she said. Because it wasn’t his fault! The police came. They were forced to arrest him. They did it against their will—that’s what these officers said, honest men. Laws and protocols regarding cases of alleged domestic dispute forced them to do it. The sight of a spilled plant only enhanced the drama.
Yes, I thought, what could cops do? Faced with potting soil dumped over a carpet, they had to pull out the cuffs.
I waited for the woman to draw a breath, but she was relentless. I finally had to raise my voice to get her to listen to me.
Ma’am, I said. Your son’s personal and family life are none of my business. His academic record is a private matter between him and the college. I thanked her for the phone call and for expressing concern, but there really wasn’t anything to discuss. If his recent absence ended up affecting his grade, we’d cross that bridge.
But the woman barely heard a word I had said. She started telling me about her medical conditions, her son’s psychological conditions, her husband’s disability, sharing uncomfortable details about recent visits to a clinic.
I managed to end the conversation by saying that I was in no position to reveal anything or discuss any details of her son’s standing or performance. Before she hung up, she insisted I understand that her shy son would never tell me the truth. That’s why he asked his mother to call.
Perhaps I’ve chosen to write about this incident because I’m trying to understand the woman’s motivations fully. Clearly, rambling pleas have worked in the past.
Is it indicative of anything that the four phone calls I’ve fielded over my career have been from women calling about either sons or a husband? I have no idea, but I’m going to say no. What I know is that calling a professor is one of the worst things a parent can do for an adult child (and it’s rather sad for a wife to do it), no matter the circumstance.
Students play the pity card very often. Conversations about their standing are either about what “corrections” they could make to past assignments, or they focus on the very difficult circumstances of their lives.
It’s true that many of them face enormous challenges. To date, however, some of the best students I have ever had include veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, a Bosnian refugee (born in Sarajevo in 1986), a man confined to a wheel chair (for reasons he did not reveal), a young woman raised among Latin Kings, and a pair of undocumented Mexican students, siblings dragged to the States by their parents when they were only toddlers.
These students told me their stories in response to questions meant to provoke introspection. They did well in my classes for only one reason: they gathered the skills I was teaching and performed to a standard.
Do I feel sorry for a student who ends up arrested for pushing his sister into a plant (if we believe it)? I do, but that sorrow does not translate into a grade. In order for this young man to accomplish anything in college, he’ll need to raise his reading skills by about four grade levels. He’ll need to learn to concentrate on tasks for more than fifteen minutes at a time. Like most of his peers, he has no historical or geographic context from which to judge texts. Beyond this, his study habits are poor, and he harbors false assumptions about the college experience.
The sad part is that his parent either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that this stuff matters. She must be aware that her son is performing badly or she wouldn’t call. But the call doesn’t offer her son the help he really needs.
Photo by Victor Casale
True Community runs each Wednesday. Gint Aras explores his experiences as an instructor in a community college that serves a lower-middle to lower class district in Chicagoland.
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