Saturday, November 20, 2004

Tardiness and retardiness

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I was sitting at home the other day, catching up on my knitting and soaking my writer's cramp in an Epsom salts bath, when I read a story in this newspaper about the tardiness problem at B.M.C. Durfee High School.

For starters, some wisenheimer over there thinks tardiness is a problem.

I have never been afflicted with that particular prejudice, thank you. I've been habitually late since I was born. My mom expected me sometime in the early 1970s -- deep into the Carter term, I finally showed up, sneaking into my crib and messing up the covers so it looked like I'd been there for a while.

So anyway, according to the story, at the high school there's a new policy that involves "corridor sweeps conducted by school resource officers." Check this out: "The sweeps, which have been used at the school in the past, only take place after students are given a six- to seven-minute cushion to get to class. ... Those who do not follow the rule are given a one-day out-of-school suspension."

And if kids who are more than 15 minutes late in the morning "are not allowed to attend school unless they're accompanied by a parent."

Both my wife and I managed to survive four years at Durfee ourselves, so I waved the article under her nose.

She's her own boss. She has her own business from home and keeps herself on a short leash, so she always punches in on time and always works late. I caught her trying to dock her own pay and organize a union at the same time.

"It says here," I told her, "that now, after the bell rings, they give Durfee kids another six or seven minutes to get to class -- but they have to bring cushions with them! To sit on! Or something like that. It says 'cushions.' Probably the school can't afford chairs." I shrugged. "If the kids are late, it says they also make the kids sweep the hallways. Don't they have janitors for that?"

She looked at the article, then at me for a long time.

"Um," she said.

I got to thinking. I couldn't make it in high school today, even if I tried.

I mean, in some ways I'd now be the most popular kid at Durfee. Which would be astounding. I was a twerp. Those four years were packed full of shame, humiliation, depression and self-loathing. Plus, I was so lousy at gym it's not even funny. When I start to think about my adolescent years -- about the drudgery, the awkwardness, the terrible complexion -- my stomach begins to curdle.

But now! With age and experience on my side, I could master the social life there. I'd own that joint in a matter of hours, son.

I can drink legally. I own my own car. I have two credit cards. My thick, lustrous beard would be secretly coveted by every peach-cheeked freshman boy and admired from afar by every cheerleader. I still couldn't defend myself against any bullies, but a quick trip to the ATM will ensure that nobody will try to swipe my saxophone on the way to marching band practice.

The tardiness thing would be my undoing -- just like it almost ended my real high school career.

In my senior year, I had a real problem with the clock. For most of my school years, I'd managed to suppress my natural instinct to show up late, aided by my rigorous regimen of worry-induced sleep and breakfast deprivation.

But I had nothing left to lose as a senior. I was a smart kid. I was in the National Honor Society. I was also in the French Club, and one day I had decided I should wear a tie and sport jacket to school every day.

Like I said: twerp.

For some reason or another, one day I showed up a few minutes late to homeroom at 8 a.m. Maybe I'd gotten a finger stuck in my Windsor knot, or I had spent too much time conjugating irregular verbs in the shower -- I don't remember.

The punishment for my tardiness?

I missed most of homeroom, which I detested anyway. All I had to do was visit the vice principal's office and get a yellow slip of paper.

The rest of the day, I felt incredibly smart. I'd figured out a loophole in the system. I decided right then that I'd try to show up on time, but if I couldn't, then I wouldn't knock myself out -- little slips of paper didn't intimidate me.

I was sitting in French class much later that day when a little angel and a little devil both tried to sneak unobtrusively on my shoulders, thinking I wouldn't notice.

"Always make an effort to get to class on time!" the angel said. "You'll only hurt your education!"

"Nerts to you, angel!" the devil said. "Stroll in whenever you want!"

"Sorry," I said. "Already figured this out hours ago."

"Huh?" the angel said, checking his watch. "What time is this?"

Throughout the year I was late to school many more times, for no reason -- sometimes I felt like toasting my bagel more thoroughly, and at others I just wouldn't feel like rushing off when there were such good cartoons on after 8 a.m.

I quickly burned through about a dozen tardy slips before a woman in the vice principal's office took me aside and told me I had detention.

"I'll just take the slip of paper instead," I said, suddenly turning white.

"Detention starts exactly at 2:10," she said.

I showed up to the detention room on time, dead-eyed. All these bruiser kids were already settling in with palpable familiarity. The air was fragrant with profanity and cigarette smoke. They all knew each other and were happy to be there. Most of them had the limp-mouthed look of the staggeringly high. Some guy was drawing an impressively accurate dirty picture on his desk. Everybody looked armed. I zipped my jacket over my tie and found a seat. Somebody started staring at my bag with a glint in his eye I recognized from seeing a Discovery Channel special on hyenas.

A guy from my homeroom looked at me. "What the fuck're you here for?"

"I refused to be fettered by The Man's conception of time," I said.

He blinked at me. "I chucked a desk at my science teacher and busted his head open," he said. "What'd you say before?"

"I was late to school," I said.

"Late?"

"Kind of a lot of times," I muttered.

But it was no use. I can still hear him sneering -- and then the rest of them when it spread across the room. I turned a deep red and said nothing more.

It's years later, and I can still see face. I brandished the article at my wife. "I learned a valuable lesson that day."

She pointed at the clock. I'd been talking for a while. "Weren't you supposed to be at work a half hour ago?"

"Lemme finish. I was about to say, I learned a valuable lesson that day." I drew out the tension for a minute or so, let it sink in, nodding soberly. "Punctuality," I said.

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