This is what I say the first day of class every year I’ve taught: Lateness is a choice.
Students hate hearing that. At first they shoot bewildered looks around the room, checking to verify that they heard me correctly, then they start shaking their heads. Lateness a choice? They have never heard something so ridiculous. Some look down and scribble in their notebooks. What kind of nut do they have for a professor?
After I let it sink in for a moment, I lay it out.
I ask: If I had a million dollars to give you, but you had to be on time, do you think you would be punctual to class?
If your life depended on being here, would you allow yourself enough time to wash, dress, breakfast?
But, they ask, what about unanticipated things? Accidents? Cars that won’t start? Snowy driving conditions?
Sure, I say. But those things, fortunately, happen only once or twice a year. The genuine root of tardiness, as we used to call it in my school days, is a neat little piece of psychobabble called passive-aggressive behavior.
They like that even less.
Passive-aggressive behavior, in case your Psych 101 is a few years behind you, is a deft trick used by all sorts of people, but perhaps by no one better than, say, an old relative. The classic example is the elderly mom who says: Son (or daughter), you take the light bulb, I’ll be fine sitting here in the darkness. Go ahead. Have a good time. At my stage of life, I don’t need light on a Saturday night.
Tardiness, or chronic lateness, is wonderfully aggressive in the most sneaky sort of way. Want to meet for a movie? Say at 9 o’clock? Well, if I show up at 9:10 I’ve screwed up the plans for the night, made you late as well, and I can shrug my shoulders and pretend that the lateness demons surrounded me and made punctual arrival impossible. It wasn’t my fault. Things happen. Or, as my students say, Whatever.
But what I really said by being late was: I have little consideration from what you wanted in this situation, so I showed up when I liked, claiming our shared time for my own uses, while you, you groundling, had to wait like a leashed puppy outside a coffee shop.
When a student walks into class late, what’s the message she or he is sending? What is he or she telling me and the other pupils?
Dude, I’m sorry if you started class, but I had to get some coffee. Start again. It may take me a few minutes to find my seat and get my book open, but you understand. I couldn’t help it. Dude, sorry, maybe those other students had already gotten into the mood a little for this class, but I’m more important than that, so, Dude, let me just get my Sharpie out.
Of course, tardiness is not restricted to students. My wife and I have a friend who is habitually late. We routinely add as much as an hour onto any schedule we try to keep with her. If we plan to meet her, or to pick up her kids, we deliberately tell her to be ready an hour beforehand. When she is invited to dinner, we try to cook things that can be heated up quickly and require no lengthy preparation. The irony, naturally, is that she is consistently on time. But it’s her time. Even her kids roll their eyes when she makes a plan. They know. Everything in her world is an hour or more behind everyone else.
As for me, I am on time, primarily, I suppose, because I’m a bit of a punctuality nut. But I also have never understood the point of being late to things. Why bother setting a time at all if you can show up when you like? One of my dearest friends, a fellow I grew up with, is as dependable on this count as a clock. If he said he would meet me on the top of Mount Washington at midnight on July 17th, I could set my watch by him. He would be there not five minutes late, not one minute late, but early or on the exact stroke of twelve. It may sound silly, but it’s one of the things I’ve always considered a tribute to our long-standing friendship. Neither one of us would disrespect the other by failing to make every effort to arrive on time. I would not for an instant consider making him wait for me. Rather, I dedicate myself to making sure I meet him on the square. If someone has to manage time, it should be at the front of the bargain, not afterward. That’s fair. That’s non-aggressive.
My position has brought me flak when I announce it in class, but I don’t care. I’ve always felt I am doing young adults no service by allowing them to wander into class whenever they manage to make it. It’s not fair to the ones who shake their tails in the morning and get moving. And it’s not, in the final analysis, fair to the tardy student. She or he had better learn to arrive on time. A boss is going to be less understanding than a crusty old professor who has slogged into a talk about expatriates in Paris.
A time or two I have locked the door. The students arrive, frequently with a warm coffee in hand, and scratch. I ignore them. The rest of the class giggles. One or two brave students came to see me afterward to protest. Their money, they said. Their classes. If they wanted to come in with five minutes left, that’s was their business.
I grin. And then I get to indulge in one of the great pleasures of growing older. I harrumph. You just can’t harrumph when you’re younger, but it because a useful tool as you turn gray. I am paid, I said, to manage a class. I can’t manage a class by letting people wander in whenever they like. Harrumph. Double harrumph.
No student has ever arrived late more than once. When all is said and done, it’s as important a lesson plan as any I am likely to make