Mine is a world of endless excuses.
Every due date, every end of semester, every time another do-nothing kid who’s five over the four-absence limit swings by my office to tell me all about his hardships—the never-ending battles, the quotidian strife—every time I read a student-written email, and anytime anything doesn’t go precisely the way I’ve got it planned—every time, I am besieged by excuses.
“Mr. Torrey,” they tell me, “It’s a long story.”
“Mr. Torrey,” they say, “My kid got sick, or my mom is dying; my car broke down, and I don’t have a printer. Mr. Torrey,” they tell me, “My alarm’s broken, and I couldn’t wake up.”
“Well you’d better wake up, man. You’d better wake up real quick. Because with every passing week, with every passing moment, my tolerance for such garbage only gets weaker. And though I’m aware—perfectly aware—you went to a shitty high school where the shitty teachers didn’t care whether or not you showed up or learned anything at all, and though I’ve been rooting for you from the very get-go, though I do in fact possess a belief in your ability to pass my class that is perhaps bordering on the pathological, I simply cannot stand here and nod my head while you patronize me like I’m some asshole without any capacity for rational thought.”
Or so I tell myself in less-than-hopeful moments. But in reality, no matter what they say, no matter how far-fetched their reasons for absence might be, my response is always the same: a roll of the shoulders and a quick little line. “You get four freebies. Beyond that, it’s out of my hands.”
But on a Tuesday morning not long ago, having lost another one of my big writing days to another big hangover, having slogged through my eleven o’clock class with a level of zest better suited for a corpse, something happened. As I packed my bag and prepared to leave, I looked up and found a lingering student. His name was Robert, and by skipping the previous class, he’d just racked up his fifth-and-final absence.
“Mr. Torrey,” he began.
But I cut him off with a hard stare, telling him that I was sorry, very sorry, really, but that he’d made his bed and five was five.
At this, Robert drew in a breath and stared at the floor. Outside, it was the first hot day of spring. The classroom’s air was still; both of us were sweating. “Professor,” he asked, “Would you mind if I let you in on something private?”
I sucked my teeth and bit my lip, trying to hide my chagrin. We were staring down semester’s end, and I was all but done with excuses. I wanted nothing more than to avoid another sob story; wanted very badly instead to take some Advil and hide in my office. But as I stood there looking at him looking at me, the only thing I could say was okay.
And that’s when Robert pulled from his pocket a small wooden coin.
“I’m a recovering alcoholic,” he said. “I relapsed two days back, and it was bad. I don’t have insurance, and I didn’t see a doctor. I don’t have a note.” He looked down to the floor again and put the coin in my hand. “It’s from A.A.,” he said. “A twenty-four-hour chip.” Then he told me he didn’t have anything else to give me, that he wouldn’t get another chip until the end of the month. “But Mr. Torrey,” he said. “I’m sorry I missed your class. And if you excuse the absence, I won’t let you down again.”
I stood there and looked right at him. The room seemed to me suddenly cooler, but just the same, my back went damp with sweat. I opened my mouth and hoped that something hopeful might come out. But all I could muster was this: “Robert, just take care of yourself, please, and don’t worry about the absence.” Then my student smiled a thankful smile and left me by myself. And as I waited there in the classroom, standing before a chalkboard marred by hungover chicken scratch, gazing down at the A.A. chip in my hand, only one thought stirred in my mind: He has his excuse, Mr. Torrey. Now where’s yours?
As for Robert: he never missed again.
William Torrey lives and works in Baton Rouge. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, The North American Review, Washington Square Review, Colorado Review, the Hawai'i Review, New Madrid and Zone 3, where his story "Trabajar" won the 2011 Editors' Prize. He is currently at work on a novel. @wshametorrey | firstname.lastname@example.org.