Of Deadlines and Dead Grandmothers

Brian Taylor

May 08, 2011

Near the end of the second semester of my freshman year at college—just before finals week—my maternal grandmother died, unexpectedly.

A commuter student and an only child, I lived with my parents at that time. It was early evening, and I was planning an all-nighter. I had a term paper due the next day—I think it was on Hamlet. I was clacking away on my typewriter: a Brother, the kind with a daisy wheel and a spool of correction tape.

I remember my mother stepped quietly into my room, pale as a ghost. "Grandmom died," she said. "We have to leave for the funeral tomorrow."

My grandmother had been living with my aunt and uncle in Ohio, more than eight hours away by car. I had seen less of her in the previous few years, but we had been closer when I was little.

"I know you can't make it," my mother said. "Not with a big paper due and exams this week."

I was grieved by the news of my grandmother's death, but I agreed with my mother: My final exams were scheduled at specific times in a few days. I never even considered asking my professors for accommodations.

It was not because I thought my professors would think I was lying. (I was not yet aware of how many college students' grandmothers—and, more rarely, grandfathers—supposedly die when papers are due and exams are pending.)

So I stayed home and showed up for my exams while my parents went to the funeral because I didn't know I had any other option. I think one of my professors had made a stern statement about taking exams—"without exceptions" was probably printed somewhere on the syllabus in bold, and I took it for a general college policy. Plus, I was on a scholarship with a minimum grade-point requirement, and I feared that missing those final course requirements could force me to leave college. And then what would I do?

My parents thought the same way. None of us had any prior experience with college professors and how policies are sometimes bent for students facing emergency situations. A professor was an impersonal figure of authority, like a state trooper or an IRS auditor, not someone with whom you could bargain.

All through college—and later, through graduate school—I prided myself on being someone who was always early for appointments, never asked for an extension, always kept his word. I suppose it was a legacy of my parochial-school education, like a proclivity for red ties and blue sport coats. We were trained to become reliable employees with an instinctual deference toward authority and obedience of the rules. "What makes you think you're special?" was the parochial-school distillation of Kantian ethics.

As I write this essay, I'm sitting in the Minneapolis airport (and stuck here for at least seven hours), having missed my early-morning flight by about 15 minutes. I planned to arrive at least 90 minutes before takeoff, but I did not plan on a traffic jam in a rainstorm at five in the morning. I crawled along the interstate at 10 miles an hour, intermittently pounding on the steering wheel in frustration while my GPS calculated and recalculated my route, adding miles and minutes to my trip.

At the airport terminal, the line to check my bag took nearly an hour. With two people still in front of me, I heard the announcement that my plane was boarding. I looked with desperation at the attendants. They looked back at me with glazed eyes. They probably had seen several people just like me that morning. They were as dispassionate as a force of nature. I hadn't even passed through security yet.

I remembered some lines from Stephen Crane's short story, "The Open Boat," about a group of survivors from a shipwreck hoping to make it to shore. They're full of romantic notions about the beneficence of nature, but it isn't long before they learn that the sea is coldly, flatly indifferent to whether they live or die. The universe doesn't care about us. Get used to it.

We cry out in desperation at the fates, and they respond: "A failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part."

Last January, the day after New Year's, I was stuck in the security checkpoint at the airport in Grand Rapids, wondering if I'd make my cross-country flight. The lines were probably five times as long as they normally are, and they seemed to stall for long stretches of time. I spent perhaps 10 minutes leaning against a bronze bust of a smiling Gerald R. Ford. At one point, there were several young women in tears, begging their way through the line to the front. Everyone let them go, perhaps with an air of mild irritation and some shaking of heads as they were thanked profusely. I don't know if they made their flight.

So—as I bide my time at the Minneapolis airport—it seems almost providential that my e-mail contains two unanswered messages from students who—amazingly—have just experienced the tragic death of their grandmothers, just as the semester is ending.

Both need extensions, and, most likely, special arrangements for their final exams next week. Neither has offered any proof, and I can't recall that a student has ever volunteered to provide it in similar circumstances. Nor can I remember that a student has ever sought leniency in this way face to face; it always seems to be done by e-mail.

How should I respond to those students now that I am the professor?

A part of me wants to insist on documentation, just as I've heard airlines do when passengers request a special "bereavement rate."

"OK," I could say, "you can have your extension and your special test, but I want to see a copy of the death certificate or a newspaper obituary." The student will probably react as if I am some kind of monster. If a student's excuse is an honest one, then I may get a call from the student's parent, who will coldly inform me that he or she has already reported me to the president of the college for being an insensitive jerk who has added to the family's grief in this tragic time. And maybe they will be right to do so.

Of course, I could just take the students at their word. I could e-mail them back: "I am so sorry for your loss. Once you've had time to tend to your family's needs and your own, please let me know how we can arrange for you to complete your assignments. I am standing by to help."

That response is surely the safest and possibly the most humane, but it still poses some ethical dilemmas. What might I be doing to the character of those students, if they are not telling the truth, and I fail to call them on it? Perhaps some discomfort now could save one or two of them from a far more consequential misstep later? And who knows what kinds of sacrifices the other students in my classes have made to get their work done on time without a murmur of complaint? Doesn't that kind of quiet diligence and respect for academic duty deserve to be honored by holding everyone to the same standards? Does such hypocritical leniency damage higher education?

But beneath all that, it is not a logical problem but an emotional one for me. Either choice requires coming to terms with that 18-year-old who did not go to his grandmother's funeral so he could complete his term paper and exams as scheduled because he was a first-generation student who feared his professors and didn't know what else to do.

I wish I had chosen to go the funeral; it troubles me nearly a quarter-century later that I didn't. I am almost sure my professors would have worked with me, if I had told them about my situation. I would have been only too glad to provide evidence, even if they didn't ask for it. But it was an option I was unprepared to explore.

It makes me wonder what I really know about my students today. How do they understand their relationship with me, and with the college? Do they regard me as a bureaucrat who has no choice but to respond in a certain way once the correct card is played? Or are they afraid of me, as I was of my professors?

If my students only knew how many times, in the decade since graduate school, I have been late for meetings or missed them entirely, and how I have failed to meet deadlines, begged for extensions, and how, in one particularly egregious case, I couldn't deliver a book manuscript after a year's worth of delays, they might feel that they could ask me for the time and assistance they need without worrying whether their reasons are good enough.

Maybe if I were a more open and approachable professor, with a longer history of generosity and kindness, fewer grandmothers would have to die.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. He writes about academic culture.