It occurs to me that when I say that I am disinterested in my students’ excuses, many people hear me saying, “I don’t care.” Disinterest is one of those words with a slippery and probably disappearing meaning. The word I’m using means this: the state of not being influenced by personal involvement in something; impartiality. I may (or may not) be genuinely sorry that the dog ate your semester portfolio. But, burden that it might be—all that gummed up 20# paper clogging up your vacuum, all those vowels clogging Fido’s intestines—it’s not my burden, nor is it my problem to solve.
At the beginning of the school year, back in my middle school days, the students would line up six deep at the desk in the morning with an array of pre-teen drama. Usually it was related to the various things they couldn’t, wouldn’t or didn’t do, or things that were done to them by others in line, and the reason why these things should matter to me. There were more mystery ailments than on a year’s worth of daytime TV. Many days I felt much like a benevolent king, holding court as his minions approached the throne, my tribute their carefully crafted tales of young adolescent suffering.
Some of us—those of us who consider ourselves “good” people—like to imagine that accommodating the continual pleas of the routinely beleaguered is the hallmark of a compassionate educator. This is, of course, bullshit.
You figure out eventually—particularly if you have any hope of surviving at this job—that however entertaining or heartbreaking or valid the story, this is not a particularly good use of anyone’s time. At best, it places the student at your mercy, you gauging the credibility of their tale (“I can get you a doctor’s note!”) while he or she awaits the turn of the emperor’s thumb. Or, since I now teach creative writing, what is perhaps best is seeing just how far your young acolytes can push their imagination. One student at SMU lost five grandparents over the course of a single semester. That’s a lot of grief for any young person. He got a C-.
My first job out of college I taught a fifth grade class in Woodson Terrace, Missouri, and one of my students did…absolutely nothing. Ever. Not one thing. Officially diagnosed as “highly gifted,” Johnny (we’ll call him) spent his day sitting in his desk and smirking. Just as they do with the comatose patients on The Young and The Restless, the curriculum coordinator, Bea, would drop by daily and ask if there was any change in the patient’s condition. She’d go back to his desk and jab with her finger at problems in his math book. He’d glance down at the page, move his pencil from one hand to the other (I remember that another of Johnny’s “gifts” was being ambidextrous) and go back to smirking. Bea would storm away indignantly, muttering, “Such a waste,” barely under her breath. By October Johnny and I would share an eye roll as she left the room. Early in the school year we’d both lost interest in the struggle. I had plenty of other needy students to attend to—including two developmentally delayed girls who were scheming to run away and marry the Fonz and poor Kevin, whose alcoholic mother, after her morning dosing, liked to drop by and check on how everyone was enjoying class.
Full disclosure: It takes one to know one, and I had no more interest in being made to do things than did John. That I enjoyed most school subjects is surely the reason I do not today live under a bridge. Most subjects, that is: I’m confident that I still hold my high school’s record for the mile run. The first of many mistakes was ordering us to “hit that track hard.” I walked all four laps. Slow. Real slow. They sent me to the principal’s office, where I was charge and plead guilty to being “sullen.”
All of which is to say that these days the syllabus is my best friend. Less a cataloging of the erudite topics we’ll be discussing from one session to the next (because God knows what the hell we’ll be talking about from one session to the next) it is mostly a listing of exactly what needs to get done to get various grades, including assignments and attendance and participation and final products. And I leave it at that. You come to class. Or you don’t. You turn things in. Or you don’t.
Most people do: Come to class, that is, and participate appropriately and turn things in and earn grades that they are pleased with. Those that don’t wouldn’t do so even if I tried to make them, and they too, are almost always satisfied with their lower grades.
Still I still find myself astonished when a student decides, as one did last fall, to play the “let’s negotiate over my absences” game. He was genuinely offended that I was disinterested in his tale of woe, seemed surprised to discover early in his third decade on the planet that choices have consequences. He insisted that he was going to make me “understand” his hard luck story and give him a passing grade.
I put on my sullen face. Eventually he went away.