When the quality of mercy should be filtered

Because of the stress, bad food, and late nights of finals week, our student body's health and appearance crash. Fashion is neglected, long-dormant pimples erupt, and dark-circled eyes evoke frazzled raccoons. But the young lady in my office stood out even among her unkempt peers. Her face was a mask of misery, and her voice cracked as she wailed in accented English, "I couldn't finish my term paper, and I know I'm going to fail the exam!"

I have a stock set of inspirational speeches to offer at such moments; all teachers do. But this student's litany of woe made them all seem rather, well, lame.

She had been ill with mono. Her parents were getting divorced. Her grandmother was sick. She had broken up with her boyfriend for reasons she was prepared to enumerate (although I requested that she refrain). She had been in the country for only a year, and still had problems with English technical vocabulary. If she got less than an A in my course, she would lose her scholarship and her "life would be over." So, she concluded, could she receive an incomplete grade now and be allowed to take the exam and finish the paper over the summer?

As a teacher, I have the power, if I am willing to fill out the requisite form, to grant such requests. The university maintains a list of situations for which students are allowed leeway on assignments and exams.

These include band practice, athletic events, "acts of God," and "family emergencies." This last category is, I suspect, left vague to provide instructors subjective judgment over the degree and credibility of the excuse. (When I first started teaching, an older colleague promised, "You'll notice a high mortality rate of grandmothers around finals time.")

Several considerations affected my decisionmaking. First, the past weighed heavy on the present. A few years ago, I conducted research on interactions between police and the public, and found a similar disconnect. One may provide "perfectly good reason No. 37" for speeding on the highway, but the beleaguered cop has heard that excuse 200 times already, and has often found it (or suspected it to be) a lie.

Likewise, as a teacher, I'd been burned before. I allowed one girl an extension on her paper because of the death of a beloved aunt. When she eventually turned the essay in, I gently asked how she was dealing with her bereavement. She gave me a perplexed look that betrayed the fabrication. I was unsure whether to be angry more at her duplicity, her foolishness for forgetting the excuse, or my gullibility in accepting it in the first place.

Another problem is that student excuses are almost impossible to verify. The health-clinic staff will not supply notes explaining how a particular illness might affect study or attendance. And I'm not willing to call someone's mother to confirm that Grandpa actually met his Maker the previous week.

I also must consider the fairness to other students of special dispensations to anyone. Indeed, while we tend to remember the whiners and the tragedians, the majority of students are philosophical about accepting bad grades. Should I forget the silent majority in favor of the whiny wheels?

These thoughts congealed in my head as my student and I talked further. The young woman confessed that she was failing all of her classes that semester.

I imagined, and I think I could detect, the humiliation she felt at having to beg for mercy from five separate professors.

Still, I couldn't do what she asked. In handing out grades, the quality of mercy should always be filtered. I can't help but think that part of the school experience is to learn how to get one's work done despite life's disasters. So I told the student that she needed to finish the paper on time or face the standard penalty. But I immediately followed up with an explanation of how to do just that. We went over her notes, discovering that she was closer to closure than she had thought. I told her about foreign students in similar situations who had gotten over the "first year in America" slump and had prospered. I don't think I actually ended up cheering her spirits, but her cosmology was no longer Aztec in its bleakness.

The resolution for my student was anticlimactic. She received a C in the course by doing well on the exam and the paper. Months later, she revealed that she squeaked by on her scholarship eligibility. I never found out if her tale of woe was true or not.

For me, the resolution was ambiguous. I sensed that the young woman was very bright; she wrote better in English than many native-born students. The final paper and the exam were essays, whereas the previous exams had consisted of multiple-choice questions full of those bedeviling technical terms. I wonder, if I had judged her to be less capable, would I have been more lenient? And again, how would that violate the rights of other students?

I am unable to develop a consistent set of criteria for these anguished sessions. It was the same for the police officers I observed. Some excuses were bought; others were not; sometimes we are tricked. Maybe that's the point: Humanity is complexity, for cops, teachers, and the rest of us.

David D. Perlmutter is a senior fellow at Louisiana State University's Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs.

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