It's 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. Classes at The George Washington University ended earlier in the week. I am breathing a sigh of relief after having read, commented upon, and graded 80 freshman English papers, computed final grades using a detailed system of decimal points, and handed in those grades, ranging from D to A, in triplicate to the office manager of the English department.
The phone rings.
"Professor Bruno?" It's Joe, one of my favorite students. He knows he missed the morning deadline for getting in his two missing papers.
"I didn't know that was final," he says by way of explanation. I stifle a groan and remind him that I told him I was handing in grades Friday.
"So those two papers I missed - you gave them F's?" he asks, shocked.
"What else could I give them?" I ask.
"Isn't there anything I can do?"
"Not at this point," I say gently.
Joe hangs up, dejected, and I feel like a hard-hearted taskmaster for actually insisting he do the work for my class.
Joe had broken his finger earlier in the semester, and it wasn't healing properly. I sympathized, and suggested that he hire someone to type his papers for him. And since he did manage to get in most of his work, I couldn't help wondering if the finger became an excuse when it was most convenient.
This year I decided not to give a final exam, so that the absolute deadline for all work was about a week earlier than usual.
In almost 20 years of teaching freshman composition, I've pretty much heard every excuse in the book, from the mundane and sad (grandparents dying, most frequently) to the bizarre ("My pet ferret needed an operation."). I've been told in vivid detail of physical ailments, family members needing support, roommates in crisis. Planes, trains, and automobiles leaving students stranded after Passover, Columbus Day, Ramadan.
Things happen. Bad things happen to good students. And I would have to say that I probably come across as a soft touch to most of my students: I'm friendly, funny in class, interested in them and their lives.
So maybe there's a perfectly simple reason I hear so many excuses. But increasingly, I've noticed, those excuses seem to be delivered without a trace of apology or remorse.
I don't want to sound like I'm perfect, and that kids are rotten these days. But I do think back to that one spring semester in which I broke my leg in a motorcycle accident, drove the family car back to school after three weeks of recovery, and finished out the semester with pretty decent grades.
I wouldn't have thought of asking professors for special favors, for dispensation from the work. It seemed nonnegotiable to me. I don't think getting in the accident was my fault, but I also didn't want to be in the position of letting other people bail me out.
To my students, even the best ones, everything is negotiable. The deadlines on the syllabus seem more like an opening position than a final rule. To them, an allergy, a cold, a malfunctioning alarm clock, or a beautifully sunny day are all plausible reasons for missing class. A broken printer, a locked-in computer disk, and a misunderstanding about the assignment are all reasons to hand in a late paper without penalty.
I'm sure even Socrates had to contend with the guy who twisted his ankle on the way to the marketplace. But today we live in a culture that makes the excuse seem almost expected, in which "I'm sorry" has been replaced by "I'm sorry if it made you uncomfortable." In which "I take responsibility for what went wrong" loses out to "Mistakes were made." In which "inappropriate behavior" covers far, far more than eating applesauce with one's fingers.
Someone not too long ago called these "Viagra days of second chances." We see the second chance as a "right." In fact, we have expanded our sense of our rights so much that one young man recently told a New York Times reporter that if you become a teenage parent, you give up your "rights" to fun and games. I guess it's good that he realizes that having a baby has real consequences, but he's making an interesting assumption about what constitutes a teenager's rights.
Becoming a culture of second chances is both good and bad. It is good when young people can be told, as I tell them all the time, that this mistake is not the end of the world. That someday they'll look back on this miserable semester and laugh. Or at least chuckle.
But it's also bad when we come to expect the second chance, with no strings attached. File for bankruptcy. File for divorce. Say, "I'm sorry it didn't work out." Take a pill and eat the nachos. Move on, wipe the slate clean.
And that's just not realistic.
Children are hurt when a couple breaks up. Creditors may have to swallow big losses when people file for bankruptcy. And those grades almost invariably stay on the transcript, to be seen by grad schools, potential employers, grandchildren.
Because nothing that has been done can be undone, and nothing spoken can be taken back, we need to live our lives as if things counted. When we goof, when we hurt someone, when we do something wrong, we need to take responsibility. And somehow, we need to teach our young people how to be responsible.
The other day, I came across my 11-year-old daughter's homework sitting on the coffee table, after she had left for school. Spelling book, spelling homework, a state report, a disk for the computer at school. I hesitated for a moment, and then decided to leave things right there.
She needs that moment of "uh-oh," and the sheepish explanation to the teacher, so that maybe when she's 18 she won't be calling her English professor with a long, unapologetic explanation about alarm clocks and broken printers.
*Debra Bruno, an English professor at The George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., has taught freshman composition for 20 years.