The Meaning of Mean

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, December 3, 2006

"You sound like one of those cranky old professors," my sister Claire says to me on the phone.

Oh, for heaven's sakes. "All I'm saying is that there are a statistically high number of students in America today with migraine headaches and dead grandmothers," I tell her.

"Some of them are telling the truth," Claire says.

"Of course," I say. "But the point is I don't even care."

"You're mean!"

Please. This has nothing to do with being mean. (I'll show her mean!) It's about boundaries. Why should I care if a student misses class? I have absolutely no use for the migraine or the dead grandmother excuse -- or the long, drawn-out apology -- because I don't take it personally. I mark the student absent, and if he or she accumulates enough absences, it will lower the grade. End of story. "It does not affect my life."

"You're so mean!" Claire says. "That's what they're probably saying behind your back, you know. 'Watch out for her; she's really mean.' Remember those professors?"

"Those professors are dead," I say. "This is a new era. College is different."

"You don't even sound like you . . ."

"This is about responsibility," I say. "Mine is to teach. And to create an atmosphere for learning. A student's responsibility is to learn -- or at least to follow the rules I've set that will enable learning to occur."

"You have become one of them, sister," Claire says. "You have become a cranky old authority figure."

"You're giving me a migraine," I say.

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