The Comeback Kid

I’ve talked about the advantage of a few years’ experience — grey hair — in this business. As newbies, teachers are faced with a barrage of information on pretty much everything — including students’ (and their parents’) comments, criticisms, defences and the like. Because beginning teachers are often overwhelmed, they can get hoodwinked by excuses. Further, their tender years (read: lack of cynicism) makes them prime targets for whiners, rogues, deceivers, louts and the delusional.

Excuses for late or missing work have been with us since the ancient Greeks.

(Socrates to Themistocles:

Where’s that scroll on the philosophy of wisdom and the improvement of mankind that you were to submit this morning?

Themistocles: Oh my, I believe I left it on the aquaduct… or was it at the agora?

Socrates: Employ your time in improving your honesty by other men's writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for.1

Themistocles: Whatever.)

Students have a lot of excuses. These can be anywhere from imaginative to sympathy-inducing. Sometimes they’re even true. These days, parents have been known to abet their children’s chicanery — It’s my fault that Jimmy’s lab report is late. I wanted to drop him off on the way to work but there was a funny smell in the car that we realized was my other son’s hockey equipment, so we got in anyway, but then I forgot my shopping list and we had to go back. So can he have an extension?

Fortunately, as we gain experience, we reach a point where we’ve pretty much heard ‘em all — maybe not exactly, but close enough.

After 30 years of teaching, I have a comeback to just about everything. Whatever asinine excuse or lame-duck behaviour I encounter, I’m on auto-pilot:

Student: Sorry I’m late, Sir, I was talking to Mr. So- and-So

Me: I don’t care if you’re coming from a Papal audience, class starts at 11:55 am.

Student: Can we pour the water bath down the sink when we are finished?

Me: Hold on, let me check the health and safety guidelines.

Student: Are we supposed to take notes?  

Me: No, don’t bother. I’m sure that you’ll remember 100% of this in six months…

Student: Can I listen to my headphones?

Me: Sure — at home.

Student: Can I go to the washroom?

Me: Yes — in your pants.

Student: I was away last class, did we do anything?

Me: No. We sat around pining after you. A few of the geekier kids opened their notebooks and doodled a few Lewis structures… but no, nothing really. Please leave us a video the next time you have a dentist appointment during class.


General comebacks to lame questions include:

  • You’re the chemist . . . you figure it out2
  • Do I look like your mother? If your mother looks like I do . . . your father has a problem.
  • Stop texting your disciples on how awesome this
    class is…

And don’t forget excuses for improper lab technique:

But it feels better to operate the buret like this.”

Maybe it’d feel better to hold a shovel by the blade . . .

Let me end by saying this: Under no circumstances is sarcasm to be used by a teacher — ever. I give my snappy comebacks only to certain students3 with a smile on my face and a wink — the undertone of which is always — always — you can do better than that.

  1. Adapted from:
  2. From Lynda deGeer, my first-year chemistry lab instructor (Thanks, Lynda!)
  3. Rule #1 with jokes: know your audience.    

The Comeback Kid movie poster

The Comeback Kid movie poster — photo taken from