Friday, February 4, 2011


I'm used to virtual strangers telling me their sad tales.  I just have "one of those faces," for good or ill, that makes people (especially crazy, lonely, or troubled people) feel safe.  Most of the time I try to think of this as a good thing, particularly in the classroom.  But for some reason this semester I've been hearing way too much, and in way more detail than I need, from some of my students.

It's the end of week 4, and so far I've heard about
  • One student's diagnosis with stage 2 cervical cancer and the surgery to remove her cervix;
  • Another student's aunt's brain tumor, and the surgery to remove it;
  • Another's HIV test scare;
  • Another's cramps, and how they kept her from participating in class discussion.
There was at least one other person with a family member having surgery, and another who told me she'd be missing class because of some sort of medical emergency.  Frankly, I appreciated the vagary of those two excuses.

And it's not just in person.  Here's an excerpt from a recent student e-mail:
I was the girl that had the busted eardrum. Anyways, I just got back from the emergency room because my ear started bleeding out again. I'm concerning you with this because I have to go to the ENT's (Ear, Nose, and Throat Doctors) tomorrow at 9:30am, so they can figure out what the next step is to do with this because this isn't supposed to happen. I was there last Friday for it and they gave me the antibiotics and ear drops to heal the infection in my eardrum and behind it, because when my eardrum actually busted they didn't catch it at Student Health. So, by the time I made it to the ENT's after that the first time my eardrum had already healed, BUT with the infection still in my eardrum and behind it. Therefore, I _might_ miss your class tomorrow.

Why, oh why, can't students use that specificity of detail in their papers?

And just this morning, a student came to drop off her paper and to let me know that she wouldn't be in class because she's got bronchitis.  Suddenly she started taking off her jacket and rolling up her sleeve, saying, "Look where they put the IV!  Why would they use that vein?" 

Now, I'm used to hearing such things occasionally throughout a semester.  And I know that some students worry that if they don't tell you the gory details of their illness, you may not believe they were actually sick.  But this semester, I've heard something like this literally Every.  Single.  Day.

Here's my theory about what's going on:  gray hair.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I've been coloring my hair for years.  Last summer I decided to try to grow the color out, partly because it was starting to feel dishonest, partly because it was damaging my hair, and partly because I was just curious as to how much gray there was.  It seemed like a good time to do it, since I wasn't teaching in the fall, and wouldn't have an audience for the really awkward two-tone phase.

So, this is the first time I've ever been in the classroom as a gray-haired, middle-aged woman, who's visibly the age of my students' mothers.  I honestly think that this sudden surge of confessional stuff, especially around health issues, is due to the fact that I look like I care.  Or like I have to care, because I'm the right age, the right sex, the right hair shade.

I'm half tempted to dye it again just to stem the tide of TMI. 

But then I might miss the occasional gem, like the student who told me that she'd missed class because she'd been taking Nyquil for a cold and didn't know that it would make her sleepy.   She just couldn't figure out why she was so tired all the time until someone explained to her that, well, you're only supposed to take Nyquil at night. 


Pam said...

Nope trust me. Your hair could be green and purple striped and it wouldn't matter. it's all in the face and the eye contact. For God's sake don't make eye contact. If you do you're dead meat. Trust me I know. I've had that face all my life.

ej said...

I agree with Pam-nothing to do with the hair color (which looks fabulous, by the way!) It is because, deep down, you care. Maybe not about their personal problems, but about them. And students with profs who care are like dogs with fear-they can sense it.

Rosemary said...

Dammit, ej...I guess I'm doomed. ;^)

Still, why so much MORE of this now than ever before? That's what's weird.

I was talking to a colleague this afternoon about this issue, though, and he told me that he got so tired of hearing way-too-graphic excuses that he actually has something in his syllabus telling students explicitly NOT to explain their absences.

But I don't even have an attendance policy! And they still feel the need to tell me all this stuff!

Susan said...

Gosh, I don't know. My husband is not particularly approachable looking (at his first job someone told him he looked like an axe murderer), and he doesn't often look people in the eye. This is mainly due to shyness, but it can be hard to know that. However, he still hears many students' stories. My favorites recently:

1. Student is having trouble finishing dissertation because she found out her fiance was also engaged to another woman at the same time. All this has led to a huge feud among the three families involved back in China, so she doesn't want to go home for comfort.

2. Student's husband, who runs successful export-import business and spends much of his time in China, not here, doesn't want to spend money on day care. He continually sends up cheap "nannies" from New Jersey who often have to leave on the quick when immigration gets a whiff, so student has to stay home with kids. (She finally insisted on day care. She is amazing - finished very good dissertation while raising toddler and newborn while husband mostly out of town. Just needs to defend.)

3. Student in Reserves has to miss exam because was involved in "altercation" with "person up to no good" while on guard duty during weekend stint and has to back to NYC to testify.

4. Student has to go back to City for unexpected surgery. Bullet that got lodged in leg bone several years ago is now acting up.

5. This one not too much info, but funny - Student brought in note from vet when his ferret died. (John requires notes when medical or death reason for missing test.)

So, you see, I think it's just a hazard of the job. Don't know why you are getting more this year. Maybe just the fates.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Rose, it's the family "big ear" curse--not your hair. Sorry to have passed that on.

Rosemary said...

Susan, the ferret excuse is the best. But wow, what a lot of drama! I thought that kind of stuff only went on in English Departments!

@"Anonymous": not your fault, for sure. :^)

Susan said...

John said to tell you that no one in an economics department wears a cape.

Rosemary said...

Touché, John. But maybe you could be the first?

Jane Kokernak said...

I agree with Pam and ej. You have the bull's eye on your forehead. This happens to me, too, although only with female students. Although I am old enough to be their mother, I flatter myself that I come across as big sisterly. (And this happens to me occasionally, too: students showing me a piece of their bodies -- here's my knee scar; here's my double-jointed thumb (!); here's where I got my concussion.)

And maybe it's that you're a teacher of lit, stories, and writing? That's another theory of mine: that we teach subjects that are identified as so close to the "self," that students want to share their selves with us. One student told me that I made her feel as though her life were so *interesting*.

I call this: school love (and the expression of).

And I love your comment that you wish they would put this much detail in their writing. So true! Maybe they appreciate more the need to be persuasive in their excuse emails than in their analysis papers.

Rosemary said...

Ah, Jane, I think as usual you've hit it on the head when you quote your student's comment that you "made her feel as though her life were so *interesting*."

I hadn't thought about it before, but this semester I'm teaching only folklore classes (one undergrad, one graduate). And because we talk so much about family traditions and other issues of identity and cultural expression in there, I think students often feel that I "know" them in a way most teachers don't. And maybe some of them take that a step further (several steps too far, in some cases) and think that means I can be trusted with all their most intimate information.

Thank you, my friend, for helping me sort that out! Good--I don't have to dye my hair now. ;^)