Great works of fiction

30th September 2011 at 01:00

Teaching is a profession in which you encounter excuses on a daily basis. The excuses teenagers concoct are often so suspect that they could probably fertilise the school playing fields. Nevertheless, there is something in them that begs leniency, if not forgiveness. The reason is fairly simple. Adults generally use excuses with a degree of premeditation. Teenagers use excuses in two situations: when they are cornered and, weirdly, when they care.

Quite recently, we had a PGCE student in to do a placement. As all trainees will attest, there are moments in your early career when you watch the respect and discipline more experienced teachers command with envious awe, while all the kids pick up on your inexperience like bloodhounds and proceed to make your classroom life a living hell (trainee teachers: this doesn't last forever, I promise).

This particular trainee teacher was treated to an alarmingly suggestive, pelvic-thrusting, crotch-grabbing dance routine from a Year 9 boy from outside the window, who was obviously under the impression she was both alone and impressed by his dance moves. I appeared at the window and he ran away (I didn't take this to heart). When it was eventually explained that his actions could be construed as sexual harassment and he was potentially in serious trouble, he explained he was practising for a Jimi Hendrix competition and he really wanted to win the #163;500. As a reward for his commitment we insisted he learn and show us a full-length air-guitar version of Star-Spangled Banner, with synchronised movements and music, by the following day.

Just about all of us have forged a note or enlisted a friend to excuse absenteeism. Unfortunately for today's teenagers, technology has made truancy complicated. All contact numbers are held electronically and a lot of parents have mobile phones. I have phoned to check countless times only to listen to the absent student pretend to be their parent. None was more memorable than a girl pretending to be her grandmother. Teenagers tend to believe that anything before 1990 is "really old". After an impressively sustained conversation with "Gran" I eventually asked what year she was born in. "Er, 1982," said Gran. "Wow," I said. "You're a 28-year-old grandmother?" "Yes," confessed Gran. "I was a bit of a slut when I was younger." I once texted a parent to enquire about the whereabouts of her son, only to get the response "He has the ebola virus but should be better by Monday".

When the pious writer and clergyman Thomas Fuller wrote "Bad excuses are worse than none", I think he was wrong, particularly where teenagers are concerned. Sure, the gamut of excuses you hear in the face of missing coursework, from alien abductions to dead relatives, can be irritating, but would "I didn't do my homework because I couldn't be fucking bothered" be an improvement?

Some might argue that honesty is always the best policy, but this is a lesson you learn and grow into as you get older. One of the most cringe-inducing revelations you have as an adult is the realisation that every single fib, lie and excuse your teenage self weaved was well and truly rumbled - but sometimes parents and teachers chose to let you believe that you had got away with it. And this is because teenagers are learning that strange and morally mixed lesson that there is a degree of decorum and caring in excuses. You just have to be older and cleverer to be any good at it.

Chloe Combi teaches at a comprehensive school in London.

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