An incident in my evening class tonight made me stop and think back to my first semester teaching. In particular, I remember one student who e-mailed me a couple days before a paper was due, telling me that a close family friend had just been killed in a car accident. A cynic would be reading this, waiting for a request for an extension. I believe I was half expecting one as I read her e-mail. No such luck. Her paper was done, she said, and she wanted to know if she could turn it in early, and if so, where she should leave it before she left town to be with the family for the funeral. It wasn't the best paper ever, and I could tell when I read it that her friend's death was weighing on her mind (it came up later in the semester, too, when she wrote an essay on drunk driving), but she went above and beyond what the stereotypical slacker student would have done.
Flash forward a year. Tonight was the first night of my late-start remedial class. I start off using the old standby "interview your classmate" routine. Two students in particular seemed to hit it off, asking interesting questions and showing a genuine interest in their new classmates. They're an unlikely pair, too, a young male traditional student who can't be long out of high school, and a single mother of two returning student. After introductions and reviewing the syllabus, I gave them a small break before buckling down to a brief, one-paragraph diagnostic essay that involved, once again, interviewing a classmate in response to a specific prompt.
The room was quiet as I waited for the last couple of students to return.
"Tell her," I heard the female student urging her classmate.
He seemed distracted and subdued. "No," he said, "I've got to do this assignment."
I asked if anything was wrong.
He hesitated, then revealed that he'd received a call that his brother had been in an accident.
I asked if it was serious.
He didn't know, but his parents were there with an ambulance.
"Do you need to be with your family right now?" I asked.
He hesitated again, before saying yes, "but what about the assignment?"
I gave him an alternate way to complete it and then sent him on his way.
I've read my fair share of professor's tales of student excuses. I've also heard my own share of borderline-plausible-but-probably-false tales of woe. It never hurts to take things with a grain of salt, but cases like these...
They're the ones most entitled to an exception or an extended deadline, and they're the last to ask (and that's an "if"). It's a good reminder not to let cynicism take over completely. It's also a reminder to me of how much power is invested in the role of "teacher." As students have reminded me, sometimes in a positive context, sometimes negatively, our impact goes beyond the classroom. It's worst case scenario, I know, but I would hate for something to go wrong and for my student not to be there because of a one-paragraph assignment that I gave.
Students like these humble me.