Better Stories

Sometimes, life happens, whether we want it to or not. Filled with optimism, we make grand plans and promises, setting out to take on the world in our own inimitable way. Soon, however, reality sets upon us, barging in with a vengeance, and we end up missing the mark. The reasons vary. We oversleep, forget, get waylaid, change our minds, or just generally go off the rails. Bottom line, we fail.

Next come the excuses. It’s only natural.

As a teacher, I’ve heard them all. Once, a student emailed me a few times throughout a semester to tell me he was snowed in and unable to leave his house. Here in Colorado Springs, snowfall varies widely, often from one neighborhood to the next, so this is a plausible situation. I’d never been snowed in that year, but who knew where this guy lived and what he was experiencing? What I didn’t realize at the time was this student lived four houses down the street from me.

There was also the student who said she couldn’t leave her house for two weeks because of smoke from a long-burning local fire. During the first week of her absence, I ran across her in the designated smoking area next to the parking lot, puffing on a cigarette like someone was about to banish them from the face of the earth. To be fair, it was an entirely different kind of smoke. That’s what she told me, anyway.

Here are a few of the most common excuses I’ve received over the years:

  • Explosive diarrhea. (It’s almost never just diarrhea. Points for details, minus points for too much information.)
  • I never check my email.
  • It wasn’t on the schedule. (It was on the schedule.)
  • I didn’t know there was a schedule.
  • What is a schedule?
  • Who are you?

This isn’t to say that bad things don’t happen, because they do. Grandparents die, spouses and pets disappear, freakish weather forces itself upon us, and pathogens run the halls of colleges like microbial Pamplonan bulls. But that’s the point, really: The people who lie about calamities make it more difficult for those who fall victim to the actual whims of fate. And like it or not, the teacher who’s heard it all is less likely to be receptive to these kinds of stories.  

Not me. I give everyone equal chances to test excuses. I’m not going to penalize a new student because three years ago a guy lost six grandparents on three continents over a span of two weeks. If someone tells me a family member is dying, I won’t ask for a doctor’s note.

But if a tale’s outlandishness can be an indication of its falsehood, maybe the opposite is also true. Unimaginative excuses, then, may be mundane because they’re true. Still, as a writer, I can’t help but feel let down when another ordinary excuse gets trotted out into the light of day.

Okay, I’ll admit it: Deep down inside, I want explanations that make me perk up and listen.  

Here are some of the more interesting excuses I’ve heard:

  • My boyfriend threw my printer out the window. Then he ran out to his car and drove over the printer twice.
  • Our garbage collectors backed into our garage door, so we couldn’t get our cars out, and I couldn’t get to school. Plus, our garage is full of garbage now, so I have to help my dad clean that tomorrow.
  • A cop stopped me for speeding this morning on the way to school, and he confiscated my textbook and notebooks as evidence. I can’t get them back until I go to court.
  • My mom spiked my morning orange juice with NyQuil, so I overslept.
  • Over the weekend, my son sold my computer on eBay, so I had to spend yesterday tracking down the buyer. Turns out, he deleted all my school work.
  • My grandparents are splitting up, so I have to go to divorce counseling with my grandfather for the next two weeks.

I’ve often said that if I had grandchildren, they would never set foot in or near an institute of higher learning. This is based on the premise that grandparents of college students don’t tend to do well when it comes to surviving, especially during the last four weeks of the term. I’ve seen terrible things happen to grandparents, inexplicable, improbable things. As an enterprising student once told me, “My grandfather’s dying, Mr. Walker. And I have a feeling it’s going to take a while.”

Were the more interesting stories legitimate? I have no idea, but I do know I remember them, even after all this time. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not encouraging anyone to lie. What I’m saying is do the work and don’t make excuses. If you drop the ball and decide to lie about why it happened, that’s your prerogative.

But if you do opt for fabrication, at least make it entertaining.