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“Can I Use the Bathroom?” and Other Public School Memories

November 10, 2013
ADVISE TO STUDENTS: When you ask for permission to use the restroom, don't carry a book with you.

ADVICE TO STUDENTS: When you ask for permission to use the restroom, don’t carry a book with you.

My daughter told me this week that she asked her teacher, “Can I go to the bathroom?” 

Her teacher said, “I don’t know.  Can you?” 

Some things never change.  40 years ago, we asked the same question, and our teachers gave the same response.  I’m sure 40 years before that, students and teachers did the same thing.  I’m sure nothing will change 40 years from now. 

One side of me knows that precision in language is important, but another part knows that a teacher has to be kind of a jerk to use the “I don’t know, can you?” response.  This isn’t being judgmental.  If anybody deserves to be a jerk without being judged, it’s a teacher.  I’m sure teachers at some point became tired of explaining the difference between “may” and “can” every time a kid asked to use the can, so this was a short, snide, and sweet way to do it. 

Plus, saying, “I don’t know, can you?” really annoys kids.  That has to be the main reason why teachers do it.  Teachers spend eight hours a day being annoyed by kids (and probably being annoyed by parents and principals too).  When teachers have an opportunity to annoy a kid back, they have an obligation to do it.   Kids should be annoyed as frequently as possible.  Being annoyed by adults builds character.  Being annoyed by adults teaches students how to be annoyed by adults once they become adults. 

Maybe I’m a lazy parent.  When my kids ask me something like, “Can I get on the computer?” I say either “Yes” or “No.”  I don’t say, “I don’t know, can you?”  I don’t even ask them to phrase the question correctly.  Maybe I should teach my kids to be more precise with language, but my parents didn’t teach me to be that precise.  They left that up to my teachers.  My parents taught me not to use profanity in public (but it was okay to listen to George Carlin albums at home).  I think that was the right way to do it.  Let the teachers say “I don’t know, can you?”  It might be one of the few joys of their day. 

Asking a teacher about going to the restroom can be awkward, even without the pressure of phrasing the question properly.  In 7th grade, I asked my history teacher if I could use the bathroom (I don’t remember how I phrased it).  He looked at the copy of the book I was carrying, Shogun by James Clavell (a really big book), and said, “You gonna take all day?” 

I put the book back on my desk and then asked my teacher again.  This time, he gave me the hall pass.  I learned never to hold a book when asking to use the restroom.  I think today that’s called a “teachable moment.”  I don’t remember anything else that I learned in that class. 

Teachers have been saying “I don’t know, can you?” for generations.  I thought that teachers would have come up with some new material over the last 40 years, but I guess it makes sense that they’re still using the classics.  Everything is new to a kid.  When I was in elementary school, a teacher said, “I was a poet and didn’t know it.”  I thought I had a clever teacher.  A few years later, I realized he had been a literary thief.  Teachers can say stuff like “I don’t know, can you?” and “I’m a poet and didn’t know it” every year and kids will think they’re using fresh material.  Teachers already have enough to worry about without trying out unused material on a new generation.  I don’t blame them for sticking with what works. 

Everybody has had a teacher that said something annoying.  What kind of annoying material did your teachers use?  What “teachable moments” did you benefit from the most?  Have you ever gotten punched out for using the phrase “teachable moment”?  What books did you take with you to the restroom?  If you’re a teacher, what annoying questions do kids ask?  And finally, if some kid asks you, “Can I use the restroom?” how do you respond?

  1. One annoying thing my teachers do is make it mandatory for you to bring a three-ring binder to their class, and then never hole-punch any of the papers they give you.

    • aqilaqamar permalink

      Oh my God good one 😀

    • Do you have to have a different binder for every class, or can you combine them? I remember some teachers demanding a seperate binder for their own class, and having six or seven of those could take up a lot of space. Not providing hole-punched copies? Hahaha! Do the teachers have a hole-puncher that you can use?

      • I have six binders this year, but they’re all small one-inch binders, so they don’t take up that much space. This year, most of my teachers have hole punchers available, but last year I had to carry around a tiny handheld one throughout the day.

  2. aqilaqamar permalink

    Reblogged this on Iconography ♠ Incomplete and commented:
    Nice intro-spectionals

  3. Yes, teachers still do so. And your teacher’s quip ,”Are you gonna take all day long?” made me smile for 5 mins. Great post.

  4. They most annoying thing teachers do is waste time getting off topic (so you end up having to teach yourself all of the material) and get half way through the story and say, “Oh, wait. I can’t say that in school.”
    One day I asked to go to the restroom and I had the Odyssey in my hand. I got a similar reaction. NEVER again!

    • The Odyssey? Hahaha! That’s probably the ONE book that’s worse than Shogun to hold when you’re asking to use the restroom. Yeah, I had a few teachers who’d get off topic too easily, and then we’d have a bunch of homework because we couldn’t get through everything in class. Aaarrgh!

  5. Thank you for taking the time to consider this from the teachers’ perspective. You brought tears to my eyes. Truly. 😉

    One I was fond of was when kids in my class asked, “Can I lend your stapler?” My reply: “No, you cannot…but you may borrow it.” Two birds with one stone in my opinion.

    • The difference between “lend” and “borrow” is far grreater than the difference between “can” and “may.” Students really should be able to ask that question properly. I’m glad you correct them nicely instead of saying “I don’t know, can you?”

  6. One high school teacher said, “Let’s get this turkey on the road,” every time we started something. On the other hand, I’m kind of embarrassed. I taught my kids the difference between “may” and “can” so they wouldn’t be embarrassed in school.

  7. As a teacher, I agree with you completely and if I ever catch myself saying, “I don’t know, can you?” I hope I punch myself in the face. For one thing, that has always bugged me since “can” is perfectly acceptable to be used for permission, as evidenced by the fact that everybody says it.

    Anyway, I teach EFL elementary, so I’m lucky if my kids say anything in English. The high level ones, when asking to go to the bathroom, just say “bathroom”. The rest ask in Korean or make graphic peeing motions.

  8. The best moment in my life was when I moved on to college and suddenly realized that I was free to leave class and seek the refuge of a toilet anytime I damn well pleased! B-)

  9. This reminded me of a history teacher whose student thought she’d called him a dirty elephant when in fact she’d said “disturbing element.”

  10. thats a nice piece in general, in kenya we practise it somehow though nt everywhere!

  11. I always hated this which the teachers at our high school loved to use:
    Teacher: Where’s your textbook?
    Student: In my locker.
    Teacher: Well, THAT’s a good place for it.

    I always wished someone would respond, “Yeah, that’s why it’s there.”

  12. Hahaha, I can’t believe this still happens. I also say the same thing to kids who ask me if they could do something or not. I guess it was a force of habit that I adopted. (Yet I still ask questions with “Can.”)

  13. In my book, The Abuse that had Saint Markella Confused, I twist biography with background information to make a totally different genre text. It will be out soon. To discuss more you can email me at

  14. hahahh nice

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