May 06 2002 Kelly Norton
I woke up this morning sick; fever, coughing, sniffling, sneezing and other non-attractive pyrotechnics of head. Waking up sick is some hint at what it must be like to awaken to an alternate reality. The sun is always out, prematurely it seems, though you realize much later that you have at some point been up and done a number of required activities. It is not uncommon to find yourself showered and dressed. And always, you wonder: Have I already called in? Well, that was a question I would have once asked, but now I email in sick and am thus afford the advantage of checking email logs to confirm an earlier outbound explanation for my absence. I miss the days of elementary school, when even less would suffice. In those days you need only show up the following day carrying a brief note with an adult signature appended to the bottom. There was no guilt; there was no chance of one of your teachers calling to get your verbal assistance in finding the crayons. That little tersely worded note, signed by a parent, was an indisputable claim to your sickness. It could have proclaimed you a one day sufferer of Ebola, and no one would question its validity, so long as the signature displayed adequate adult qualities, like sweeping smooth curved J's, or wide bottomed S's. In those days, it was amusing to chuckle to yourself when you knew classes were changing or lunch hour was ending. Sometimes, you were even able to sneak out into the yard to hear what the neighborhood sounded like everyday while you were away.
College is the first sign of trouble; it is then when you are first held accountable for your days of sickness. At a minimum, you miss ten pages of notes which must be reconstructed from the sloppy pen of your neighbor. Worst case, though, you wake up the morning before an exam and find that your head has been displaced by a kaleidoscopic substitute and you must hastily secure the appropriate clearances. Professors frown on an after-the-fact request for a make-up exam. They would rather hear your dying voice before the ceremonial passing out of the exams. The more difficult the exam, the more incredulity you will find in your professor's response. It is this suspicion that will eventually do away with remaining magic of the sick day in the next stage of life, because the working sick day is always met with doubt. A College sick day also lacks the wonder of being in a place and time that is forbidden; less than a week earlier you had no doubt skipped classes for no other reason than to wonder around during that sacred time a day without the slightest plan whatsoever. Hell, you may even consider going to class sick because otherwise you might be later compelled to attend on a day more suited for skipping.
Oh, but the working sick day is so very different. The first thought might lead one to think that the working sick day would bring about a rebirth of the elementary school sick day, with all the mystery of the forbidden and the ease of reentry the following day, but sadly it is a thought quickly dismissed. All the wonder of the working sick day is consumed in suspicion. It is the first time in the evolution of your sick days when someone else must foot the bill for your illness. True enough, there are many who are not paid for a day they cannot work, and as for them I cannot attest to the quality of their sick day. But for those of us who are allotted a number of days each year for convalescence, we must undergo the grand interrogation of the call-in. And though I have given up the call-in in favor of the email-in, the same game must be played, possibly to a greater extent since there is no room for corrective tones in the voice to ward off growing suspicion. The little secret of a working sick day is that unless you are admitted to the care of professional health workers, not a soul truly believes you are sick. For the sake of tact, of course, no one will attempt to call your bluff but as they listen to your course voice or read your poorly worded email they will find in it some miniscule evidence to support their doubt and chuckle a little under their breath. The key, in fact, is not to convince the person that you are truly sick, but to instead draw so little attention that the episode is easily forgotten by lunchtime. The novice will mistakenly send a detailed description of his ailment, hoping that the flooding of authentic symptoms will put aside any doubt. Nothing makes you more of a faker than elaborate descriptions, and the mental image of your snotty nose and clammy skin will stick in the minds of the doubters throughout the day, so that their suspicion has a chance to ferment into something truly damning. Equally as bad, and usually the next mistake the advancement of the sick employee is the call-in that supplies not a single allusion to the nature of the suffering. The origin of the doubt is undoubtedly obvious in this case, and the presumptuous tone of a single sentence email just worsens the effect. Truly, the most effect way of calling in sick is to script your excuses in advance, when you are well. I usually sit down on a Saturday, take out a pad and a pencil and construct at least a dozen excuses so that I will have a variety of ailments and tones ready whenever I awaken to find myself under the weather. I have discussed the topic with others who prepared their statements up to a year in advanced; one distant friend even prepares his each year with his income tax forms. With any luck, your library of excuses will cover the full gamut of your ailments, but if you are somehow taken by an illness for which you have no prepared statement do not panic, simply send an excuse for another ailment. This is far better than risking a call or email when you are truly sick; the mind is far too weak in those cases to play the game properly. It is little wonder why some just suck it up and head into work, rather than making that dreadful call.
The magic of the elementary school sick day has been lost, and all that remains is a few hazy memories and a longing for Ferris Beuller's Day Off.