You Fail | Joe Janes

 I teach Improvisation at Columbia College in the Theatre Department. While it is a required course for many theatre students, it is one of the easiest classes ever. It is creative gym. You don’t even have to improvise well. If you show up, participate, and do the two writing assignments – short essays that include the favorite hyphenate of every college student, double-spaced – you will pass.

The only way to fail is to not show up. The university policy is you can have up to three unexcused absences. A fourth absence, and that’s it. The teacher can flunk you at his or her discretion and I’m a dick.

Tosha was in my morning Improv 2 class. She had a down-to-earth demeanor that was refreshing to see. I liked having her in class. She balanced out the few that tried too hard to be funny. But two months in, she was already at three absences. She was within her right to have those three absences, but I let her know there could not be a fourth.

About a week later, she got the flu. It was going around. Anyone who has worked at a school knows when something starts going around, it’s just a matter of time. There’s a germ out there with your name on it. She asked if there was a way to make up the absence if she stayed home. If not, she’d try to come in. Now, I don’t like making exceptions to the policy. Students find out you’re soft and it gets around. I told her to keep her sick ass at home. Write me another essay. Which she did. She turned it in the following week. We were good to go.

We did our final show on the Friday before the semester was over. She and the rest of the class rocked. Monday morning rolled around, everyone was there, on time, except for Tosha. No one knew where she was. I was disappointed.

After class, I went to the teachers’ lounge when I heard a ping from my e-mail. “Dear Mr. Janes – I am so sorry I missed class. I found out right after the show on Friday that my grandmother had passed away. I went straight to Carbondale and forgot to tell anyone. I just got back. Is there anything I can do to make up the class? – Tosha”

Such horrible news. Still, something seemed off. Something the back of my mind was trying to remember … oh, yes. Tosha had friended me on Facebook. I looked it up. Her last status from Sunday read, “Whoo! Hanging out at the Cubby Bear with my homies and watching the Bears stomp ass.”

Never friend a teacher on Facebook.

I wrote her back. “Dear Tosha – I am so sorry to hear about your loss. It’s so awful to lose a grandparent. Were you very close? Also, just curious, how did you manage a trip to Carbondale while celebrating a Bears victory in Wrigleyville? – Joe” … Dick.

I sat back and waited. Ping! “Dear Mr. Janes – You must be referring to my Facebook update. I can understand your confusion. There’s a bar in Carbondale also called the Cubby Bear. I went there after the funeral with family to help us cheer up after losing my beloved Grandma. – Tosha”

Okay. Was I being an insensitive asshole? Is what she wrote true? I always want to believe my students. Always. Before I went further down the accusation hole, I checked some things out. I could not confirm that there wasn’t a bar called Cubby Bear in Carbondale. I did, however, type in her name and the word “obituary”. Up popped all the information about Grandma Rutherford’s funeral in Carbondale. One of the survivors being her granddaughter, Tosha. I sat there for a few minutes. Stunned. I sucked. I sucked, because it took me that long to check the date. July 18, 2008.

“Dear Tosha – Please accept my profuse apologies for being so callous in your time of mourning. All I need to officially make this an excused absence is some documentation. Perhaps you can send me the program from the service or a link to the obituary. – Joe”

I sat back. I checked Facebook to find that Tosha had unfriended me. I told another teacher about what was going on and his response was, “Oh, yeah. I had her in class last year. Her grandmother died then, too.” Ping!

“Dear Mr. Janes – It all happened so suddenly, we didn’t do an obituary or have programs. Is there anything I can do? Write another review? I really can’t afford to flunk. – Tosha.”

“Dear Tosha – Send me the name of the funeral home. I can verify it with them and save you from having another absence. All funeral homes do obituaries. They look like this … ” and I included a link to her grandmother’s obit … dick.

I did not hear from her for hours and expected to not hear from her at all. On my way home for the day, I heard that ping.

“Dear Mr. Janes – I obviously have been lying to you. I am so very sorry about that. I was embarrassed about what really happened. My friends and I partied too hard the night before, after the Bears game. I slept through my alarm clock. I have enjoyed your class and feel like I grew as an artist because of it. I am deeply sorry I did not tell you the truth. I really need to pass this class, but I understand if you feel you need to fail me. – Tosha”

“Tosha – Thanks for understanding. – Joe”

Joe Janes is an Emmy award-winning writer and teaches comedy writing at The Second City and Columbia College. He has written for Jellyvision’s “You Don’t Know Jack” and SNL’s “Weekend Update.” He has written three books: 365 Sketches, 50 Plays andSeven Deadly Plays. His full-length plays include Metaluna and the Science of the Mind Revue, A Hard Day’s Journey Into Night and Always Never. He writes regularly for WNEP Theatre and Robot vs. Dinosaur.
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