Monday, January 25, 2010

The Art of the High School Excuse

I had a good laugh this morning while driving Sammie to school. I don't have many good laughs in January (I'm like the Grinch, my heart feels too tight or small) but this one was the type to get everything flowing that's supposed to flow when you exercise or laugh heartily. Something about endorphins or dopamine, anyway. I unfroze my endorphins. That may be my only accomplishment today, but if it is, I'll be OK with that. Cause it just felt sooooo good.

While it lasted.

ON the way to school Sammie ripped a piece of paper out of a notebook and handed it to me. Then she began to dictate what to write as if I were her secretary and as if I were illiterate. She said, "Please excuse Samantha from B2 on January 20. She was sick. Sincerely, blah blah." I followed her instructions exactly until the last sentence.

She was sick. First of all when I write these things I wonder how many times Mrs. Cosgrove the attendance secretary has heard the "sick" excuse when she knew darn well the kid wasn't sick. Let's multiply the number of years she's worked as a high school attendance secretary BY all the kids who have skipped or sluffed (as I used to call it when I did it, ahem) or otherwise couldn't handle class on a particular day. That's enough excuses to rival those of our politicians, legislators and lobbyists in every state.

Side note: One day last year when I was "excusing" an absence of my older daughter, I told Mrs. Cosgrove she ought to write a book about the crazy excuses she's gotten over the years. She laughed. The thing is that per the attendance policy at our high school the only excuses that are accepted are ones that involve sickness, doctors, accidents, and major trauma. So unless you have that . . . So the poor woman's not getting very many laughs anymore. Too bad. It's a job that needs some laughs.

I said to Sammie, "This is so ridiculous. Let's write a REAL excuse for why you missed B2." She answered that if I did that she wouldn't be excused.

I went on, "Let's tell the truth. Let's say that you woke up 10 minutes before class and rushed to school but then wanted to come home and eat breakfast and fix your hair. So I came and got you. Let's say your hair was a wreck and you were starving."

"Mom!" she yelled. "Then she'll make me go to the assistant principal because that was not a LEGIT excuse and he'll give me a lecture about the importance of attendance and how I need to do better." Not legit. Since when is the honest truth not legit? I would have pondered this more had I not been trying thinking of other REAL excuses.

"I can think of other excuses," I giggled.

"Mom! I'm sure you can. Will you just write it?" she yelled. By now we had two of her friends in the car and I was really on a roll. I was in my typical 7:26 am mode: crazy hair, pajamas and a puffy coat. She was not amused.

"How about," I went on, "you just couldn't handle another day of dreary, boring, uninspired Mr.______________?"

"Or you just needed a break from the rat race that is high school. . ." Less funny, but no less true. My mind went back to my own "sluffs," which usually involved not having an assignment done or wanting to avoid someone. Or just being tired and overwhelmed. I remember feeling that a lot.

"That would go over real well," she said smugly.

"But that's the truth."

"This isn't about the truth."

"What's it about?"

"It's about getting excused and not having to go to ARC." (a detention-like prison where you have to PAY money to sit for an hour and think about your bad your decision to go home and fix your hair and eat breakfast because you woke up late.)

Oh. And then it came to me. The screwed up lessons our kids are learning because they are trying to avoid punishment for needing to live. That not missing class is more important than pulling yourself together. Attending a class by a teacher who hands out worksheets and tunes out for an hour is MORE important than sleep, food, hair (and we know the importance of hair in high school) or any other emotional need that a kid might have.

And you can't write that in an excuse because it's not legit. So we must lie to get excused. And then it's OK?

That we have to lie to excuse our kids for not attending classes by tenured teachers who have long given up on teaching, but are in survival mode until they can properly retire. And properly retire in this economy means that there will be many more burned-out teachers biding their time surfing the internet and handing out worksheets until they can jump ship. They figure they gave it their all for so many years for so little pay that they just don't have it anymore. So they will coast. And you can't really blame them. Or the kid either, for not wanting to go to class.

And if that class is a civics class or American government class and the teacher is uninspired because he or she has been overworked and underpaid for so many years, students will suffer the consequences. They will lack patriotism and be ignorant of the democratic process.

Let's think about high school for a minute. First It starts at an ungodly hour. Researchers have been saying for hours that teenagers are not awake before 9 or 10 am anyway, and it would behoove school districts to rethink school hours. No one listens. They can't. If they start later then they end later and then there is not time for extracurricular activities that students MUST have in order to get into a decent college.

If school districts start school later then students may not have enough time to get in all the AP classes that they want to take so they can also get into a good college. And because school districts have had to cut back on these classes they are not easy to fit in their schedules. Sometimes students have to go to other high schools to pick up an AP class that their school doesn't offer anymore. And then that adds scheduling and emotional stress.

So we push our kids to achieve and do well. But we don't support them that much. We give them some great teachers, some mediocre teachers and some crappy teachers and a Draculean attendance policy that requires them to either lie and go merrily on their way or tell the truth and be punished. And we sometimes cut the classes they need and make them find other alternatives.

Parents and teachers spend a lot of time telling students what a tough place the world is and if they don't buckle down and do well they won't amount to anything, get a job or be able to support themselves. Then our schools make it tougher by showing no mercy or compassion when it comes to attendance. Think of the real world: Most employees get a sick day or a personal day or an "emotional health day." At the very least, high school students deserve the same consideration.

I was not laughing anymore. I wrote on the excuse, "She was sick" and signed my name. I should have written Lying Mother instead. The earlier laughter had been a bright spot in a dreary month, but then I felt sick myself that it had come to this.

But it had been a great laugh.


Kirstin said...

amen. You really know how to get me up in arms. I have another agenda if you'd like to co-sponsor a complaint because you are such a great writer. Christmas break, what was that? One day off before Christmas eve? Thanks for nothing, Alpine! Well, thanks for the thoughts, SO TRUE!

Kirstin said...

amen. You really know how to get me up in arms. I have another agenda if you'd like to co-sponsor a complaint because you are such a great writer. Christmas break, what was that? One day off before Christmas eve? Thanks for nothing, Alpine! Well, thanks for the thoughts, SO TRUE!

Lynsie said...

Keep on laughing, I say! You are SO right and I dare say we can blame the current health care system and on high school administration idiocy. I'm sure that's where it all began! :)

Dottie said...

Very good. You should publish this in the newspaper. You need your own column. Someone has to start the change. At least make the complaint to the principal about that teacher. Uggh! the memories come flooding back!

Cathy said...

You are so right! There have been a couple of times this year where I let Emma sleep in after a bad night's sleep. When I took her to school late we had to go to the office to get a tardy slip. "Why is she late?" the secretary asked me. "She needed some extra sleep", I said. "She was sick?", she asked me. "Sure", I said. So, she wrote "sick" on the tardy slip. Really, if my kid was sick this morning, would I be bringing her to school?! I wanted to shout, "She is 5 and all day kindergarten day after day is exhausting! She just couldn't catch the 8:00 am bus this morning!"