I heard John Ciardi speak when I was a freshman in college. At the time he was poetry editor and contributor at Saturday Review. His reading of “On Flunking a Nice Boy out of School” impressed me. When I happened to come across the poem some years later as a teacher, I photocopied it and kept it under the glass on the top of my desk.The most striking line in the poem is about having the student’s work rather than his excuses. I don’t like excuses. I don’t like listening to them and I hate worse to make them. Why not tell the truth?
I shared Ciardi’s poem over the years with a few students who I felt were not living up to their potential. As a matter of fact, I have used the poem to tell on myself.
I was chair of my college’s curriculum and instruction council. At times the workload was overwhelming and I simply did not want to do it. My dilemma was not wanting to make excuses to the council members for not being prepared on time. Rather than to offer excuses, I confessed. “I have no excuse,” I said. I an email, I told them I felt I was the boy who Ciardi flunked out of school. I attached a copy of the poem to my email. I didn’t receive any feedback from the email and the work was finally accomplished.
Making excuses is a common attribute of human behavior. Everyone makes an excuse at one time or another. I wonder why we feel threatened about telling the truth. The need for an excuse is a matter of choosing to do one thing over another. Even though what needs to be done is important work, we will choose to do something else that may be more pleasant. Then we make up “dog ate my homework” stories about why we didn’t do what we were supposed to do or said we would do.
Flunking a student is a dilemma for a teacher who is faced with both duty and disappointment. A student capable not only of doing the work but of excelling at it cannot be allowed to get by with an excuse. “I’d sooner have it from the brassiest lumpkin in pimpledom, but have it, than all these martyred repentances from you.”