A student explains why he can’t take the midterm tonight.
Every teacher in the world hears loads of excuses. No matter what level of student they instruct, teachers deal with them. As a community college English instructor, I field student excuses constantly
Most are garden variety. I had a family emergency. That’s the adult student’s version of I have a stomach ache. Just as there’s no test for a stomach ache, there’s no way to say, “Prove your emergency.” Asking for proof is actually a jerk move, just as it’s insensitive to ignore a child’s claim to pain, even if he claims it each week.
Other excuses are self-incriminating. I couldn’t figure out how to use the submission website, but I emailed you my paper. Well, good, but your assignment was to learn how to use the submission website. I didn’t understand what you meant by MLA format, but I handed it in. The assignment was to learn how to format your essay in MLA. This isn’t plagiarized. My sister wrote this. That’s an all-time greatest hit. Apparently, this sister is a man who writes for Reuters.
Of course, some of the things students share are really serious. My students face enormous challenges. A majority are what educators conveniently call at risk, as our community is plagued by all the problems associated with poverty and a lack of education: violence, gang activity, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, domestic abuse, pervasive health issues, including high rates of anxiety disorders. I consistently see students quit mid-semester for medical reasons.
Some of them just can’t catch a break and begin to feel like karma is playing perverted games with them. One young woman, slogging through her fourth year of trying to earn a two-year degree while attending part time, managed to get a job in a cafe, move out of her needy mother’s attic and was finally poised to transfer to a 4-year college. At the beginning of her final term, she was hit by a car while riding a bike and ended up bedridden for—vile coincidence—sixteen weeks, or exactly the duration of the semester.
If there is a difference between the challenges young women and men face, it occurs in the kind of employment they find. Young women tend to take much safer and, yes, more beneficial work. In my last article, I mentioned that working women I teach meet peers and mentors—especially when working in health care—who have college degrees. Not only do men tend to lack this resource, they also often work jobs that put them in physical danger.
I don’t simply mean jobs that require heavy lifting. Because of tuition benefits, many students work for UPS; I’ve read essays about UPS from both men and women. While most grocery store stock boys or juice truck drivers tend to be men, one woman—a hard-as-nails Croatian girl working as a bartender—missed a final exam when beer kegs rolled off a dolly and onto her leg.
But she’s really the exception. The students who end up falling out of trees or rolling off roofs are men. The ones who’ve been to war and are managing PTSD are almost always men, and I teach veterans every single semester. The students who on the night before a midterm have their orbital bones or ribs broken while working as bouncers are men. These stories are not as rare as people think.
I’m going to protect the identity of the student who offered me the most riveting excuse I have ever heard, so I’m not going to tell his whole story. Let me call this young man Leon. I knew him well; he had taken several of my classes, and we had talked many times during office hours. He was in his late 20’s.
Leon was working as a security guard, attending the college to become a cop. The guy was huge but quite gentle. He was one of those rare students who’d comment: “It’s amazing how all the things you give us to read make us think about the underdog. I never knew there would be writers like that.” He once brought me a credit card application and asked for help understanding the fine print. “What’s the worst thing that can happen to me if I start using one of these?”
Normally, his skin was the tone of dark honey. On the day before a midterm, he came in about fifteen minutes early to stand in the doorway, his face the color of ash. A mere glance told me we had to talk in the hall. Leon and I stood next to a drinking fountain and he told me, his eyes bloodshot and soaked as sponges, that he couldn’t take the midterm today. I was about to stop him before he went any further, but he told me, “I had to shoot a guy at work last night. Like, fatal. It was me or him.”
I told Leon he had to be good to himself and go home. I shared everything I knew about counseling in the community and advised him to take as much time off as he needed. He never came back that semester and I have never received any contact from him since.
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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Photo by Lauren Manning