We were about halfway through the semester, and it was time for the second test in my C programming class. I told the students that I would do a test review during the next class period to give them an idea of what I expected.

When the next class period came, my class was empty. Forty-eight students were enrolled in it, so I knew it was more than just one or two being sick or forgetting. I walked next door to the computer lab. I could see most of my students were there. I announced that I was starting class, but none of them moved toward the classroom. Instead, they just grinned and continued with what they were doing.

It didn’t require any stretch of the imagination to know what was going on. I remembered, that while working on my degree, all of the students in one of my classes, except for two of us, decided that if they skipped class, the teacher couldn’t fail all of them. It appeared my students felt I couldn’t give them the test if I didn’t do a review. I realized there was just one thing to do.

I faced the empty classroom and said, “The first question is going to be about using pointers to return items from functions.” I then wrote a sample type of function and return values on the board and explained it in full detail. I then moved to question two. My explanations were more thorough than usual, and when I asked for questions, there were none. Of course, no one was there to ask.

I went through the test concepts one problem at a time, as I always did, and was getting near the end of the hour. I was just finishing the information on the last question when a grinning student stuck his head in the door. He grinned wider, seeing the empty room, but his grin disappeared when he saw what I was doing.

He quickly disappeared, and I was erasing the board when the students came rushing into the room.

After they took their seats, I said, “Next time will be the test. Anyone who misses without a good reason will get an automatic zero. Any questions?”

One boy raised his hand, and when I called on him, he asked, “How can you give us a test when we haven’t had a review?”

“But I just did a review,” I replied. “I told you it would be today.”

“You gave a test review to an empty classroom?” another boy asked incredulously.

“My job is to teach,” I said. “That is what I am paid to do. No matter how many students do or don’t come, to earn my wage fairly, I am expected to carry out my assignment. Me fulfilling my assignment is not dictated by whether or not you fulfill yours.”

A girl shook her head in disbelief. “Professor Howard, you’re strange.”

“Thank you,” I replied. “Class is excused. I’ll see you all on Friday.”

When Friday came, no one was absent. The test results were much lower than usual, and the students were relatively subdued when I passed them back at the beginning of the next class. One of the girls in the class looked like she was about to cry.

“Okay,” I said. “I believe in both justice and mercy. You have seen the justice part. Now it’s time for the mercy.”

“You’re going to increase our grades?” one boy asked.

I shook my head. “No, you are. Mercy is not always free. You can earn it.” I then handed them each a piece of paper. “On this paper,” I said, “you will find a list of programs you can write along with possible points you can earn if you choose to do them. The points cannot total more than the points you lost on the test, but you can decide which programs you do and how many points you gain.”

Many of the students groaned at the extra work, but most did it. The programs were meant to challenge them and make them dig a little deeper. By the end of the semester, the enhanced skills showed in their work.

But more important than the programming skill they gained was a lesson about life.