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I Was Absent, Did I Miss Anything In Class?

“Did I miss anything?” asks the student who was absent yesterday. Many teachers are apt to sigh at such a question and respond with sarcasm, “No. We did absolutely nothing of value yesterday.” Especially snarky teachers might reply, “No, and neither did we.”

However, “Did I miss anything?” is an entirely fair question. While teachers often take the question for an insult, it is actually very polite. “Did I miss anything?” is an abbreviation. The full version of the question is, “Did I miss anything I couldn’t figure out on my own?”

The question is not born out of the suspicion that nothing was done in class, but rather that coming to class is never truly necessary. When the teacher is merely transferring information from his own head into the heads of the students, the students quickly realize that while coming to class is required, it need not be. Coming to class might be helpful, coming to class might provide some extra incentive to learn, but being in the classroom itself is non-essential. When the teacher does not present himself with authority and speak with authority and command the lectern with charisma, forcing students to come to this classroom to learn from this person is more or less arbitrary. Learning anywhere else (home, pajamas) from anyone else (self, Wikipedia) is just as effective as being in the classroom and learning from the teacher, and so students ask, “Did I miss anything?”

When class is run by a dull materialist, the question, “Did I miss anything?” means “Did I miss any material? Any deadlines? Any handouts?” If the students do not expect the teacher to bequeath them a double portion of his spirit, the only thing he can really give out are deadlines and handouts and factoids. To give and receive a double portion of spirit is tricky, but handouts are easy to give and receive. If you miss receiving a double portion of spirit, you might have to wait a long time until it is given out again. Handouts and deadlines can be received at any time, however.

When asked by an interviewer what “The Waste Land” was about, T.S. Eliot simply began reading the poem. If Eliot could have reduced “The Waste Land” to something simpler than “The Waste Land,” he would have written that instead. Why waste time with “The Waste Land” if the poem could be truncated into something more concise? Is not brevity the soul of wit? By the same token, a student cannot “make up” for what has been missed in a good class. If a student misses a 60 minute class on Monday and only needs 10 minutes on Tuesday to make up for all that has been missed, the teacher wasted 50 minutes of everyone’s time on Monday. The teacher should strive to teach irreplaceable classes.

Students instinctively understand the value of time, though. If a certain student cannot make it to a class party, later asks, “What did I miss?” and is told, “We just sat around and talked,” he knows he can never account for what he has missed. The students at the party can convey the subjects they discussed (math class, music, girls) to the one not present, but the essence of the party was bound up in one another’s company. Likewise, there is no way to make up for missing Christmas Eve, your mother’s birthday, your daughter’s baptism. These events cannot be reduced to information, facts, itineraries, programs. These events are only known through the sacrament of presence. So, too, a good class cannot be accounted for entirely a day later, under different circumstances. How can the child make up for a good class which was missed? It is simply not possible.

If the teacher sets about to transform students, to pour out his soul for his students, it will matter disappointingly little if the student reads the missed material at home. A good teacher is not present merely to enforce the rules, to penalize academic crimes. A good teacher is a performer, a showman, a juggler. A good teacher is a stylite, a comedian, a film director, a prophet, and a one-man band.

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