Roll Call

Taking attendance is as rote of a task as a teacher can perform.

Attendance happens every school day, and I despise the process. It’s necessary to do, of course, but I find ways around doing it in my main classes. I assign students their seats and keep a chart close by so I can take attendance by sight based on the empty chairs. Homeroom is not a main class. There, I take attendance every time we meet.

It is so automated a process that, before long, students can tell when I miss calling out a name. They memorize the roll order, or at least identify when that order is disrupted.

We—students and teacher—both find ways to disrupt the monotony. They create synonyms for the word “here” like “present” or “on the premises” or “in the house.” Bolder students say “Yo”; the boldest ones say, “G-Money,” or some other lame nickname they’ve given me.

I have my own way of breaking the drudgery. I sing the names in some sort of meter, using their “here”s like the offbeat of a rhythm. Students catch on and attendance becomes a beatbox session until the silence of an absent student screws it all up.

But on most days, there is no escaping the remarkably unremarkable task of taking attendance in homeroom.

 

During Thursday’s roll, a counselor of the school walked in and had a seat next to me. I’m not used to breaking up the recitation of names, so I continued as usual. The counselor’s job overlaps with mine in different areas, I wasn’t surprised to see him. I expected nothing out of the ordinary, nor would I ever have reason to while taking attendance.

He sat cross-legged next to me when I dismissed him.

“So, [student x] is here today?” he said.

“Yes, he is.”

“Okay, good.”

“What’s up?”

“Someone in the city by that name was shot last night. We had to make sure it wasn’t him.”

“Wow. Well, he’s here today.”

“Good to know,” he said, standing up.

“And thank God for that.”

“Yes. Thank God for that.”

I got to thinking. “It’s crazy,” I said, “to think that I was just taking attendance, but you were checking to see whether this kid continued to exist.”

“Always more going on than you think.”

“Isn’t there?”

“That’s why I ask parents to cut me some slack when I respond to email. Usually, if I haven’t gotten back to a parent, it’s because I’ve been dealing with something a little more important all day.”

“But they never get that, do they?”

“Get what?”

“They never get that there are more important things happening outside of their bubble, do they?”

“No, they don’t.”

 

I don’t get it either, frankly.

I just said that to make conversation.

It may be the stranger you ride next to on the bus, the shopper who always checks out on Friday night in front of you, the neighbor who you see every morning, but it’s hard to imagine someone could be here today and gone tomorrow so seamlessly that you discover they are gone during homeroom attendance.

And yet it happens.

There was a teacher in some school who took attendance on Thursday—a teacher likely going through the motions—who called the name of a student who no longer lived. Somebody found out via roll-taking that there was one less soul to take roll of.

My day changed when I thought about it: while I was in my rote stupor, the counselor was on a life-or-death errand—the sort of errand that gets the adrenaline pumping and the heart rate up.

It reminded me of a new podcast released by a colleague of mine and his friend. Last week’s episode addressed the slew of devastating storms and natural disasters assaulting the continent. Mike and Dino, my colleague and his friend, the co-hosts of A Revert and a Convert referenced what has become known as Walker Percy’s theory on hurricanes: when our lives or communities are threatened by disaster, we feel a rush of human connection that breaks the numb and disconnected nature of our everyday existence.

Mike is the same colleague of mine who helped make my reluctant perusal of a Walker Percy book become the answer to a prayer this summer. I told him after listening that I may become a Percy convert yet.

I feel the malaise, as Percy calls it, of the mundane the most when taking roll. So when on Thursday it became a dire task, I felt a clearing of thought and purpose. My day’s agenda didn’t matter. Nor did my lesson plans or schedule. The routine fell and it felt good.

 

Percy’s theories challenge my claim that everydayness is miraculous.

Maybe that’s why I put down his novel and his book of essays before finishing them. Something I rarely do. Still, I relate to the malaise. My disdain for that feeling motivates me out of places like a hot pan motivates your hand off the handle. It gets me up early and keeps me up late—this fear that all I have is my attendance record. It puts me in a restless search to imbue my routine with meaning.

This week’s roll call was no different. It’s never just the attendance, or the trash takeout, or the dishes. It is always more. And somewhere, in every second of our existence—in the ever-presentness of the one recurring moment we live in—the urgency of life is defying our routines, our grievances, our discomfort, our boredom, our malaise.

That’s why it’s never just a roll call. It’s an accounting for souls, a process that acknowledges the dazzling multitude of implications that life brings to every day on earth.

“Bueller? Bueller?”

 

I found out later that day that there was more urgency concerning the identity of the murdered teenager than I originally thought.

Not only did he have the same name as a homeroom student of mine, but he was a former student of our school, one who transferred out. I heard he was robbed Wednesday night and took out his knife to defend himself before he was shot dead. The young man who shot him bled out and died from the stab wound.

It shouldn’t take tragedy to wake me from my sleepwalk through the mundane. After all, I have been finding miracles everywhere since my addiction to pints, pills, powders, and plants took away my will to live.

Surviving that required me to learn that life is more meaningful when it’s not about me.

I hate when tragedy has to remind me of that lesson.

Tragedies should be more unforgettable.

Or maybe that’s the point.

Maybe the point is that we are free to shed the shackles of tragedy to appreciate what we have all the more.

16 Responses to “Roll Call

  • Good reading. Hope all is well with you.

  • Hi Mark,
    I had a beautiful little guy, Jacob, in one of my kindergarten classes. He was funny, smart, and charming.
    It was summer, When he was just out of third grade, when he was murdered by his sister’s boyfriend.
    Jacob’s mother, and his best friend, Jeremy, were also murdered.

    They were tied up and tortured. The boyfriend wanted Jacob to tell him where his sister was hiding, and he refused to do that.

    We did the best to honor him, planted a beautiful garden, had a memorial, but how can you take away the horror of what happened?
    I wrote three beautiful songs that I sung at the memorial, and those songs will never leave my head.

    To Jacob, I love you.

    Wendy

    • Wendy-I’m so sorry. I’ve been thinking for a couple days how to reply to this. But I have nothing. Just my condolences. I don’t think you can take away that horror. It’s making me think what I wrote about tragedy in the post. Thank you for sharing though. I know the only way out of anything is through.

  • Another powerful one, Mark. When one of my teen’s best friends took his own life last spring many parents wanted to place blame on some mutual friends who ‘got him drugs’ or were ‘bad news’. I made sure my son knew they were all welcome at our house as they were all dealing with the loss and grieving. So many adults want to throw kids away today just as we see them do with we alcoholics or addicts. Kids have it harder today than we did with social media and the availability of a lot more deadly drugs. They also have to learn by falling off their bikes and getting back on again. We have to realize this everyday and with every kid. Thanks again for your thought provoking blog, brother.

    • Thanks Gregg-I really agree that the kids have a very hard today. There’s no way around that. I’m so glad the people in your community, the kids, have someone to rally around, someone to grieve with them when needed.

  • Poignant – also again reminds me why I’m so glad to live in a country where handguns are banned and our murder rates so my lower per head than the USA.

  • Another powerful piece Mark.

  • As a Child do we not all hate school ? We go with it unaware of the difficulties waiting ahead. You can call roll call all you want. You can even lift it up a bit…unfortunately you are only feeding your own needs. I have no right to sound so rude. That is not my intention. I follow your tweets. You are good but…..who are you serving ? Only yourself to give you strength through this storm. Your story is no different. What you should do is go deep inside your mind. That is what will inspire others to simply live

  • Hey Mark – this covers a lot of territory. The mundane transformed into a literal life-and-death missive. Tragedies, including all these hurricanes and such, certainly bring into focus the uncertainty of this life we have (and in our case, our second lives). And then, inevitably, the tasks of taking out the garbage and kids’ homework and all that bring us back to our safe and/or predictable bubbles. I often wonder if I am living, or just existing, when I focus on these ordinary chores. But as you do so every Monday here, you crack these open and reveal a deeper meaning. So I have to be open to that and grateful that I have garbage to take out, that I have garbage from food preparation and opening new products that I bought with money from my job, etc.

    Anyways, thanks for this, Mark. This is fantastic. I am sorry to hear about these kids. Makes me very sad.

    Blessings
    Paul

    • sally peabody
      3 weeks ago

      Hello Paul. I am Sally and I am a recovering alcoholic. I appreciate your words and I heard them. I totally understand your thinking and we are on the correct path. Humility and understanding. Questions in our minds that only we have the answer to. You will not get a response from the Miracle of the Mundane because he has lost his reason for writing his blog. He has turned it into a money market. Unfortunately that shows a greater loss of his purpose.

    • The community is grieving On our end for sure. I didn’t know him but plenty of people reached him freshman year. He was a senior when he was shot and killed. It’s tough.

      Definitely changed the idea of taking roll. I’m glad that came through in your reading of it. I’m with you for as far as those routines go. I’m very strictly routine based. So much so that I get lost in it. That malaise creeps over my soul.

      Thankfully, there’s writing and reading and this community and the in the flesh one to keep things new and different for guys like us.

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