The Day No Students Came to Class… or Did They?

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The day began as a usual teaching day. It was only the second week of the new semester and the fourth day of class, but I had already fallen into a rhythm.

At promptly 7:40 a.m., I left my office and walked across campus and up the stairs to the third floor of the building where my 8 a.m. writing class meets. As I approached the classroom, I made a mental note that the student who typically arrives ahead of me wasn’t there. I proceeded to my standard preclass routine: I logged into the instructor’s computer, noting that the gray water bottle that had been sitting on the instructor’s desk since the first day of class, waiting to be reclaimed by its owner, had been replaced by a pink one. I turned on the projector and organized my notes.

8 a.m.: None of the students had yet arrived.

8:05 a.m.: Still no students.

8:10 a.m.: Still no students. I checked my email and LMS messages for communications from students that might explain their absence. Nothing. I checked my cellphone and email again for messages from the university’s alert system, thinking perhaps I had missed a notification of canceled classes. Nothing. The institution’s nationally ranked men’s basketball team had played a game the night before. I wondered if perhaps the students had stayed up late attending the game and then decided that getting up for 8 a.m. class was too much effort. I quickly recalled, though, that it was an away game that our team had lost, so I eliminated a late night as the explanation for all the empty chairs.

8:15 a.m.: Still no students. I felt worried about my students yet frustrated by their absence. I was torn between whether to remain in the classroom and continue waiting for them or to simply leave. In 20 years of teaching, I’ve never had an entire class of students not show up, so I wasn’t sure what to do. The students and I had discussed how long they should wait if I’m ever a no-show. We agreed that 15 minutes was reasonable. I decided the same applied to me if my students were no-shows.

8:17 a.m.: Reluctantly, I logged out of the instructor’s computer, gathered my belongings and left the classroom. As I walked through the building, I peeked into other occupied classrooms to reassure myself that classes were, in fact, in session. In the building where my office is located, I ran into a colleague and shared the story of my missing students. We were stumped, trying to figure out a rational explanation for their disappearance.

I spent the rest of that day—and much time over the next few days—wondering where my students had gone and why. Had they stepped up to a TikTok challenge? I didn’t want to believe they would do that. Had I stumbled into an alternate universe? Implausible, yet it was the only explanation I could think of. Colleagues responded with suspicion about the students’ motives but offered no real explanation. In the following class session, I didn’t mention the episode to my students and proceeded with business as usual, waiting to see if any of them would mention it. None did.

But the class after that, when I asked a student in passing why he’d missed our last two meetings, he joked, “Yeah, where were you last week?” Other students quickly chimed in and insisted they had been in the classroom. I believed them, but I also knew that I was in the classroom and no students were there with me. One student, Javier (a pseudonym), suggested I had gone to the wrong classroom, perhaps the one directly above or below ours, “because all the floors look alike.” I rejected that suggestion because, in my two decades of teaching, I’ve never gone to the wrong classroom. “There’s a first time for everything,” he responded.

Another student reasoned that it was more likely that I, one person, had been in the wrong classroom than that 12 students would have been. We didn’t arrive at a logical explanation that day, so we decided to revisit the conversation in a future class.

Update: Two weeks had passed since my students didn’t come to class. Again, at promptly 7:40 a.m., I left my office and walked up the stairs to the third floor of the building where my class meets. As I approached the classroom, I noticed again that the student who arrives before me wasn’t there. I logged into the instructor’s computer, noting the pink water bottle, turned on the projector and organized my notes.

7:55 a.m.: It was odd that no students had arrived yet.

7:57 a.m.: Uh-oh, will this be a repeat of two weeks ago? As I waited for my students, I looked out the window and noticed that the alley our classroom­­, #340, overlooks from the third floor seemed closer than usual. Those university-owned electric vehicles looked bigger, too. Then I looked around me. Really looked—and saw.

The realization was like a veil being lifted. The accessibility sign on the wall read Room 240. The alley and electric vehicles looked closer because they were. An entire story closer. The gray water bottle had not been replaced by a pink one. It was a different water bottle, because it was a different classroom. On a different floor. I was indeed in the wrong room!

7:58 a.m.: I quickly logged out of the instructor’s computer, hurriedly gathered my belongings and rushed to the third floor—to the classroom where I belonged. My students were there waiting. I arrived at precisely 8 a.m. and realized that this must be what happened two weeks ago when I thought my students didn’t come to class. I hadn’t believed that was the explanation, but as my student so wisely said, “There’s a first time for everything.”

And it appeared that perhaps this day was the second time. If I had gone to the wrong classroom this time, it was likely I did so on that curious day when I preferred to believe that I had stepped into an alternate universe—instead of allowing that I, the instructor who was supposed to be in charge and know everything, had made a mistake.

I stood in front of the classroom and took a deep breath. “I’m later than usual because I went to the wrong classroom,” I said. “I realized it, then rushed to get here on time. I’m so sorry I didn’t listen when Javier suggested I went to the wrong room!” I wondered how they would respond.

Javier calmly asked, “What room were you in?”

“Room 240,” I said. “Right below this one.”

“So, I was right when I said that last time,” he responded.

“Yes, you were right.” I smiled. They all smiled.

One after another, they responded with grace and understanding. My mistake was truly no big deal to them. They were glad to know I understood that on the day in question, they were in the right place at the right time, while I was in the wrong place the entire time. A student even joked that the class should make up dozens of signs that read, “Not Room 340” and tape them to every classroom door in the building, except for our classroom door. The sign on that door would read, “This is Room 340!” We laughed. We joked. We understood how ridiculous the situation was. We moved on.

A Bigger Lesson Learned

Why is it that I’m still thinking about what happened and even sharing this story with you? Because I think I learned a far bigger lesson than just finding my way to the right floor.

In March 2021, amid pandemic teaching and an outpouring of empathy toward students, I wondered if the return to “normal” would ever again find me feeling annoyed by my students behaving like, well, students. Two years later, it’s revealing that I, and the colleagues I consulted, immediately leaned in to the narrative that my missing students were somehow being annoying or delinquent. But in reality, I had made a mistake and was simply being human.

In my defense, it’s an oddly configured building whose quirks I’d gotten out of the habit of navigating during online pandemic teaching. Like so many writing instructors, overwork leaves me easily distracted, so on that fateful day I failed to notice the large “2” sign beside the door to the second floor. Indeed, the floors in the building all look alike. And so it was that I ended up on the wrong floor, in the wrong classroom.

The reminder that I’m only human, making mistakes and doing my best on any given day to meet my students’ needs, is a powerful one. The lessons of deeper empathy and understanding that came via pandemic teaching are just as meaningful now as they were then, perhaps more so, as the repercussions of lockdowns and distance learning are revealed through our students. We need to continue to give our colleagues, our students and ourselves latitude to mess up sometimes. I may be only human, but so are my students. They, too, are making mistakes and doing their best on any given day—including coming to class when I thought they hadn’t.

Sarah E. DeCapua is assistant professor in residence, first-year writing, at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.

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