29 December 2022

A degree in creative excuses

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Scroll down for previous articles] 


All I remember from Grade 7 is that I never looked forward to being in class. Grade 7, at least as far as formal education went, was made of homework and other assignments not done or half-done, admonishment from teachers, the occasional rebuke from my mother who was on the tutorial staff of the same school and not being enthusiastic about showing either of my parents the school report (marks were jotted down on the Student Record Book — the SRB — and a parent had to sign off, indicating that the bad news was seen).

The good memories are of moments that had nothing to do with formal learning. The bad ones I’ve unconsciously tried to forget. It’s hard because I was bad in most subjects, ordinary in some and good only at English and Western Music. There’s one incident I just can’t forget for both the trauma and the humour.  

Back then there was a category of subjects titled ‘Pre-Vocational’ and we had to choose two, one each from subject baskets. I picked wood work and business studies (that would be ‘Vyapara Adhyanaya’); I still don’t know why. Wood work was fun although I wasn’t any good at it. Business studies — I was clueless. The teacher was a fearsome and absolutely humourless elderly man. He must have been a good teacher, but I lacked even the basic understanding to make a call on the matter.  I can’t remember his name. He was referred to as ‘Kotiya,’ probably because of perceived ferocity.  

Kotiya gave homework. It was alright if you made an attempt but if you didn’t he would punish with sharp strokes of the foot ruler on the open palm.  One unforgettable Monday, Kotiya asked all the boys who had failed to do the homework to stand up. By the time he came to me at least three other boys had got two strokes of the foot ruler. Terrified, I tried to give an excuse.

‘My uncle got married on Saturday and the wedding was in Kegalle,’ I started. It was true. Then I realised that my excuse had to cover the entire weekend. I struggled: ‘We came back on Sunday…’ I was failing: ‘I could have done it last evening,’ I confessed, resigned to the inevitable.

Kotiya, for reasons I still can’t fathom, said ‘You get only one stroke of the ruler because you admitted that you haven’t done the homework!’  I was not a good student but I was, I believe, intelligent enough to quickly figure out that I had been rewarded unfairly — the other boys essentially said ‘didn’t do’ and got two strokes of the ruler for THEIR confession!  

I am sure I must have muddled through Grade 7 with admonishment and punishment. I’m sure I was never any good at coming up with anything close to a creative and memorable excuse. I can’t even take credit for the Kotiya reprieve.  It was about 17 years later that I learned about creative excuses being rewarded.  

Michael Dear, now the Professor Emeritus of City and Regional Planning in the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, and who taught a course on Postmodernism at the University of Southern California at the time, related the story. I can’t remember if it was triggered by a silly excuse for an assignment being handed in late, and if indeed it was, I could not have been one of the culprits (yes, I became a half-way decent student somewhere down the line).

‘I used to work in London and a red line was drawn at the time by which people should have signed in. However, those who were late were given the opportunity to jot down excuses. Whoever came up with the best excuse was pardoned.’

I can’t remember if it was Michael who had come up with the following classic, but all the students laughed: ‘I was on Westminster Bridge and I stopped, looked around and wondered what is the meaning of it all!’  

I still remember recalling the incident with Kotiya and thinking how dumb I had been. Of course, I was just 12 years old back then, but then again I had never been able to come up with any excuse close to the one Michael related.  

Michael, a postmodernist, asked us what we had learned from the class at the end of the semester. Some said ‘I am not a postmodernist.’ I said, ‘Pre-modern’ and Michael asked, good-humouredly, ‘so why did you take this class?’ ‘To learn the terms so that I could do my politics better,’ I said. He laughed and said something to the effect of ‘good enough.’  I never forgot his story about excuses though.

In fact years later, having somehow managed to complete two long essays on the very last day of the year 1999 (Y2K fears prompted the university authorities to declare that all overdue assignments have to be completed before midnight on December 31 or else the particular courses will be marked ‘no credit’), I penned the following ‘excuse’ along with essays duly attached to the email:

‘I am sorry that I am submitting this several years after taking your course. It’s just that I am convinced of my immortality: time just doesn’t make any sense to me.’  I knew that both professors, Phil McMichael and Susan Buck-Morss, were quite laid back about such things. If it had been anyone like Kotiya, I might not have risked being so cheeky.

Looking back, I feel that I did graduate with a degree in creative excuses thanks to Michael, although I’ve not had the opportunity to use those skills — editors are simply unforgiving when it comes to meeting deadlines! 




Other articles in this series:

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road