I was in my third year of teaching creative writing at Ralph McKee Vocational School in Staten Island, New York, when one of my students, 16-year-old Mikey, gave me a note from his mother. It explained his absence from class the day before:
“Dear Mr. McCort, Mikey’s grandmother who is eighty years of age fell down the stairs from too much coffee and I kept Mikey at home to take care of her and his baby sister so I could go to my job at the ferry terminal. Please excuse Mikey and he’ll do his best in the future. P.S. His grandmother is ok.”
I had seen Mikey writing the note at his desk, using his left hand to disguise his handwriting. I said nothing. Most parental-excuse notes I received back in those days were penned by my students. They’d been forging excuse notes since they learned to write, and if I were to confront each forger I’d be busy 24 hours a day.
I threw Mikey’s note into a desk drawer along with dozens of other notes. While my classes took a test, I decided to read all the notes I’d only glanced at before. I made two piles, one for the genuine ones written by mothers, the other for forgeries. The second was the larger pile, with writing that ranged from imaginative to lunatic.
I was having an epiphany.
Isn’t it remarkable, I thought, how the students whined and said it was hard putting 200 words together on any subject? But when they forged excuse notes, they were brilliant. The notes I had could be turned into an anthology of Great American Excuses. They were samples of talent never mentioned in song, story or study.
How could I have ignored this treasure trove, these gems of fiction and fantasy? Here was American high school writing at its best—raw, real, urgent, lucid, brief, and lying. I read:
• The stove caught fire and the wallpaper went up and the fire department kept us out of the house all night.
• Arnold was getting off the train and the door closed on his school bag and the train took it away. He yelled to the conductor who said very vulgar things as the train drove away.
• His sister’s dog ate his homework and I hope it chokes him.
• We were evicted from our apartment and the mean sheriff said if my son kept yelling for his notebook he’d have us all arrested.
The writers of these notes didn’t realize that honest excuse notes were usually dull: “Peter was late because the alarm clock didn’t go off.”
One day I typed out a dozen excuse notes and distributed them to my senior classes. The students read them silently, intently. “Mr. McCourt, who wrote these?” asked one boy.
“You did,” I said. “I omitted names to protect the guilty. They’re supposed to be written by parents, but you and I know the real authors. Yes, Mikey?”
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“So what are we supposed to do?”
“This is the first class to study the art of the excuse note—the first class, ever, to practice writing them. You’re so lucky to have a teacher like me who has taken your best writing and turned it into a subject worthy of study.”
Everyone smiled as I went on, “You didn’t settle for the old alarm clock story. You used your imaginations. One day you might be writing excuses for your own children when they’re late or absent or up to some devilment. So try it now. Imagine you have a 15-year-old who needs an excuse for falling behind in English. Let it rip.”
The students produced a rhapsody of excuses, ranging from a 16-wheeler crashing into a house to a severe case of food poisoning blamed on the school cafeteria. They said, “More, more. Can we do more?”
So I said, “I’d like you to write—” And I finished, “‘An Excuse Note from Adam to God’ or ‘An Excuse Note from Eve to God.’” Heads went down. Pens raced across paper.
Before long the bell rang. For the first time ever I saw students so immersed in their writing they had to be urged to go to lunch by their friends: “Yo, Lenny. Come on. Finish it later.”
Next day everyone had excuse notes, not only from Adam and Eve but from God and Lucifer. One girl defended the seduction of Adam on the grounds that Eve was tired of lying around Paradise doing nothing, day in and day out. She was also tired of God sticking his nose into their business.
Heated discussions followed about the relative guilt and sinfulness of Adam and Eve. No one said anything negative about God, though there were hints. He could have been more understanding of the plight of the first man and woman, said someone.
I asked the class to think about anyone in history who could use a good excuse note. I wrote suggestions on the board: Eva Braun, Hitler’s girlfriend. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed for treason. Judas. Attila the Hun. Lee Harvey Oswald. Al Capone.
“Yo, Mr. McCourt, could you put teachers up there?” said a student.
And then I heard, “Mr. McCourt, the principal is at the door.”
My heart sank as the principal entered, along with the superintendent of schools. Neither acknowledged me. They walked up and down, peering at papers. The superintendent picked one up, showed it to the principal.
The superintendent frowned. The principal pursed his lips. On their way out, the principal said the superintendent would like to see me.
Here it comes, I thought. The reckoning. The principal was sitting at his desk; the superintendent was standing. “Come in,” said the superintendent. “I just want to tell you that that lesson, that project, whatever the hell you were doing, was topnotch. Those kids were writing on the college level.”
He turned to the principal and said, “That kid writing an excuse note for Judas. Brilliant. I just want to shake your hand,” he said, turning back to me. “There might be a letter in your file attesting to your energetic and imaginative teaching. Thank you.”
God in heaven. High praise from an important person. Should I dance down the hallway, or lift and fly? Next day in class, I just started singing.
The kids laughed. They said, “Man, school should be like this every day, us writing excuse notes and teachers singing all of a sudden.” Sooner or later, I figured, everyone needed an excuse. Also, if we sang today we could sing tomorrow, and why not? You don’t need an excuse for singing.
TEACHER MAN BY FRANK MCCOURT, COPYRIGHT © 2005 BY GREEN PERIL CORP., IS PUBLISHED AT $26 BY SCRIBNER, 1230 AVE. OF THE AMERICAS, NEW YORK, NEW YORK 10020.
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