Saturday, May 16, 2015

RYS Flashback. 8 Years Ago Today.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

My Grandfather Died and All I Got Was This Lousy Grade

Please accept my sincere condolences on the loss of your grandfather, which caused you to miss an entire month’s worth of class. I would have sent them when he actually died in February, but since the first I heard about it was last week in your grade grievance report, I was unable to do so.

You know, for a student who will receive a D- in a research course, you have become suddenly adept at locating the department office, the email address of the chair, and copies of months-old correspondence which I never received and therefore did not acknowledge. Well, hey. Perhaps you’ve learned something after all.

In your many emails, which as of today I am beginning to delete without even opening, you have addressed your utter shock that a rough draft was due while you were gone despite the fact that the turn-in date appeared on the syllabus I gave you on January and has been available online ever since; your sudden, deep concern over heinously low paper grades which have also been online since the day I handed them back in class; and your disbelief that I did not receive an email which you sent to the wrong address. However, no single aspect of this sudden burst of correspondence captures the source of your wonderful D- better than this sentence from your own hands: “I didn’t think attending your class was important that day because we were only talking about our paper topics.”

It’s really, hugely, mega-sad that this one grade might be “the deciding factor as to whether or not (you) return to college next year,” but seeing as holding to the evaluation you’ve earned will neither send you to a rice paddy nor necessarily doom you to a life of collecting used cigarette butts for a living, I think I can live with it.

I know it’s tough to lose a family member. My grandmother died when I was exactly your age. During finals week, as a matter of fact. My professors were generous and flexible, and made alternate arrangements with me to make up tests and papers.

You know why? Because for an entire semester, I had made it clear via showing up to class, turning in assignments on time that weren’t half-assed, and actively participating in discussions that I actually gave a rat’s ass about my own education. And when an emergency situation arose, I dealt with it like an adult. I went to my professors immediately, used their correct email address, apologized for the inconvenience I was creating instead of issuing orders, and then called them, spoke to them before or after class, or went to see them on their office hours to follow up. An amazing thing happened. They treated me like an adult in turn.

I’m sure that when you are forced to explain your grade to your parents and sniffle about this to your frat brothers which you once for three paragraphs described as “defining you,” you will no doubt announce that your English teacher gave you a D- because your grandfather died. But I will tell you this. Last week, when the department chair contacted me about your unhappiness with your grade on the day before I was scheduled to move across five states, I still, with an entire apartment to clean, my life packed into a car, and my Internet connection due to expire within hours, dug out my gradebook which detailed your many absences, and for an hour filled the chair in on a few facts which you conveniently left out of your description of the massive injustice you are suffering at my hands.

Wow. Those adult skills sure do still come in handy.


  1. Classic treatment of a universal theme; feels fresh and contemporary even eight years on. Five stars.

  2. Yep.

    Does anybody here send condolence letters to the families of these students? I'm considering that for the little dear who "found out" that her aunt had died the night before a midterm exam. Could he take it two days later at my office hour?

    No, and please accept my condolences at this difficult time. "Given the circumstances,
    it makes more sense" for Bereaved Student to take a different version as a makeup during finals, if he provided some verification of the aunt's passing. Among other reasons, that's what the syllabus says. Does anybody need Captain Subtext to translate "given the circumstances" or "it makes sense"?

    Guess what? Bereaved Student (note initials) would prefer not to wait till finals week! Berieved Student will have SOOOO many other things happening then. Bereaved Student just needed a couple of extra days to recover from his loss.

    Students with genuine losses and crises never argue about my policy. They thank me for the chance to make up the exam. Like the young man whose wife's chemo stopped working, and the mother whose child has sickle-cell disease.

    I don't have to accommodate B.S. I'm looking forward to the "evidence" he presents. And I'd really like to extend condolences to his family. If an aunt really died, it will be a thoughtful gesture. If not, perhaps it will shut down B.S. (at least this one).

  3. Two of my students have lost parents this semester (one mother early in the term, one father toward the middle). I don't know the details, but I get the impression that neither death was entirely unexpected. And, though I didn't ask for confirmation, I have absolutely no doubt that both deaths were real, mostly because the affected students displayed a combination of shock/numbness and a determination to get on with things that I recognize from my own experience with loss.

    More to the point, I didn't need to ask for confirmation, because neither student fell significantly behind, or failed to satisfactorily complete any major assignment. In fact, I had to go back and double-check that I remembered correctly which two students (out of over 100) were involved, to make sure that I didn't lower their class participation grades inappropriately. As it turned out, I didn't really need to do that, either; both of them had entirely satisfactory participation records (which I bumped up by a point or two to cover the few class days lost to the event).

    Different people grieve differently, and I admittedly find it easier to sympathize with students who react in a way that I find familiar than those who are more expressive in their grief. In addition, I suspect (in fact, I hope) that these two students weren't as stoic in private moments as they were in class, and I suspect they may have a hard time this summer, once the structure and familiarity of schoolwork is gone. Still, they (and the guy who was babysitting his siblings for long hours while his parents worked equally long hours to try to avoid foreclosure) set a pretty high bar for students dealing with situations of lesser magnitude.

  4. At my joint, all student excuses are handled by the Office of Student Appeasement and Retention. In this way, the mounting casualties of relatives can be tracked across all courses for the students' several years with us. This has greatly reduced the death toll.