Monday, January 09, 2006

I Get In Touch With My Writing Roots

I wrote an essay as an undergrad that I was recently reminded of. I pulled it out and remembered that hey! I used to be a pretty good writer, and there's a reason I minored in writing. But now that I'm done patting myself on the back, I also decided to post this essay. Even though it's longer than most of my posts, now that I'm back in school I've been reminded that it is still relevant. So here it is:

I am a student in an age when students have begun to take control of the classroom away from the teacher. Nowhere is this more evident than in colleges across the country where students have learned to manipulate teachers into giving them free rides because of all the “problems” we have that make it impossible to work. The work of excuse-making students is half-done before they even open their mouths. After all, sympathy is on our side. We are coming of age in a time of high drug use, teen pregnancy, anorexia, bulimia, and countless other problems that plague the youth of our society so it is easy for students to lament over their exaggerated problems to a professor. In fact, it is encouraged by a substance-abusing, overeating, undereating, depressed, hyperactive, neurotic, stressed-out, you-name-it-we-have-it society.

I have an acquaintance to whom many of these labels apply. “Ann” is a sometimes-anorexic, sometimes-bulimic, sometimes-depressed, sometimes-suicidal, sometimes-substance-abusing college junior. She slips in and out of these various identities with an ease that is frightening, but most of the time she is just plain normal. Do not misunderstand what I am about to say for lack of sympathy. I am truly sorry for Ann that she must fall into these labels to cover up what is surely a highly complex psychological problem.

Having issued the proper disclaimer, I must confess my disgust for Ann’s manipulation of her professors. Several times she has missed classes honestly due to these problems. When she explains to the professors, they are almost always very understanding. Yet much more often Ann brags to me about how she has missed classes, assignments, even a couple of exams because she would rather go out with her friends than do school work. “It’s so easy,” she tells me. “I just go in and tell them about my eating disorder and cry a lot, and I get excused.” She is careful never to miss too much of one course so that the teachers never get too suspicious.

There are those students who really have serious problems, and they deserve the teachers’ sympathy and generosity, but let’s not forget that it is generosity. There are also those students who make up problems to get out of assignments, and because they do not have these problems, they will never understand how inconsiderate they are being. Then there is Ann. She is both of these things, and as far as I’m concerned, she is the worst kind of person because she understands how real these problems are to those who have them, yet she exploits them anyway for her own gratification.

Ann feels that because of her suffering she has the right to lie. She refuses to see that she is demoralizing herself, that each time she lies about her problems, she totally undercuts the validity of every student who really was in the emergency room last night getting her stomach pumped, or really did have to go back into rehab. Soon professors will get wise and demand a note from the emergency room technician. As more students get caught in such lies, professors will become desensitized and less understanding of those who are telling the truth. A sad story and some tears won’t cut it anymore.

I wish I could say that I am exaggerating about Ann but I can’t. I wish I could say that she is an aberration, but she isn’t. “Bob,” another student who is a mutual friend of Ann and I, also expressed his distaste for her behavior to me. However, he chose a different way of dealing with it. He told me that if she can get away with such conduct, that he might as well get in on the action, and he has begun to use made-up problems to get an extra absence or two excused. Of course, he explained to me one day, he can’t say he’s anorexic because hardly any men have this disease. He prefers to use his family’s made-up problems, such as his father’s “drinking problem.”

Another classmate of mine, “Jane,” tells me because she hardly ever makes up excuses, that it is okay for her to do it once in awhile. Jane says that maybe once a year she lies to get out of class. My retort to this was, “If we all did it once a year, don’t you think that professors would get suspicious?”

She replied, “But we don’t all do it.”

Yes, Jane, but more and more of us are doing it every day, and some professors have begun to catch on. Last semester when I told my professor that I had to miss class because of a root canal, he said, “You better have a doctor’s note when you come back.” Some students to whom I voice my complaints tell me that I should mind my own business, that it’s not hurting me any, but this last example proves that it is my business because it is hurting me. Professors are beginning to harden. Granted, a root canal is not as big a deal as some people’s problems but this just illustrates that when something serious happens to any one of us, the sympathy may no longer be there because of students like Ann, Bob, and Jane, who lie to professors, and also because of all the students who know this is going on but don’t care. This excuse-making does matter to all students. These lies will eventually affect us all.

The micro-society which exists on college campuses is an indicator of what is going on in the rest of the country. The apathy of most students toward the situation is characteristic of many Americans’ strong reluctance to blame someone for doing something blatantly wrong, such as lying. If you doubt that this is so wide-spread, think about the last time you called in sick to work because you just didn’t feel like going in, or the last time you blamed a missed deadline on a personal problem. We all know this kind of lying and excuse-making goes on, and many of us have been guilty of it at one time or another. Perhaps it is this guilt that makes us lack the conviction to blame people such as Ann for abusing the trust of her professors. After all, if we have done it or have knowingly allowed it to happen, who are we to point the finger of blame?

So in this blameless society, I must excuse Ann’s reprehensible behavior. After all, it isn’t her fault that society has shaped her value system in such a way that it makes it okay to lie about her problems. And it isn’t her fault that her teachers so readily accept her tearful explanations as true. And it isn’t her fault that her friends want her to go out instead of studying. Is it?

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