"I Wouldn't Go," Dad Said

It's hard to grasp why students want to be absent from their own lives. Their job in the classroom is to show up and receive by listening, expressing ideas, participating projects with instructors and peers to become articulate and even somewhat experienced albeit in a limited, controlled environment.

In public schools, this opportunity comes courtesy of tax dollars, of course. At the state university levels, students and taxpayers foot the bill. It's startling, then, that absenteeism is such an issue in a society that demands good mileage on ever buck. Nevertheless, in Waterbury, Connecticut, about 2,000 students will repeat their current grade because the city is enforcing its absentee policy. The policy allows 18 unexcused absences--fully ten percent of the school year--but slams the brake on grade-level advancement beyond that point. No excuses.

At the college level at which I teach, instructors have some latitude on determining the importance of showing up. I say it's essential. Every absence counts as a zero. Every missed paper due to absence is an immutable zero. Predictably, more grandmother's die in the name of that first missed due date than at any other time in the semester. In fact, no relative dies once I've made it clear that I ain't budgin'. Last semester, for example, five grandmothers in two classes died on the same day. I said nothing; I accepted no late papers; I participated in no arguments.

I received provocative, profane emails from one student. At the end of her rant, she excused herself on the grounds of being Italian. My goodness, I thought, a mouthy fool and a self-deprecating bigot all rolled into one. The child needs help. I never acknowledged any of her performance and eventually she came off her high horse and participated in my class. At the end of the semester, three other students challenged their grades; all had excessive absences. This did not stop them from sending abusive emails, but I didn't mind. They realize once I point this objective information out to them that there is no higher power who will take them seriously once they reveal they have five or, oh, twelve absences in a semester.

When I was a teenager, if a date showed up late for me, my father would simply say, "I wouldn't go." The he'd let me go. I went. It was always a mistake because if a guy couldn't tell time or couldn't muster enough interest to be present, he was probably a jerk. Dad knew, but he let me figure it out for myself.

People need to show up for their lives--as friends, as family members, as employees, as members of social groups, whatever--their intentions or their understanding of the concept of the importance of participation is not the same as participating. When you show up and you talk to people, you realize we all have a lot to learn. Among the lessons that present themselves are lessons of courtesy, respect, and accountability for every aspect of your life. It's good. And it's a good rule.

Click here for a New York Times story on the (cash) benefits of showing up.


  1. Dad was right. What a great article.

    I had many professors like you along the way . . . they were right, too, so don't budge. You don't tell the Supreme Court, for instance, that your grandmother died. You submit the brief because you have planned in advance and managed your time. So you are helping those students, whether they realize it now or not.


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