No time to say hello, goodbye
A few months ago, we packed up and moved back to the Netherlands. It’s been a decade, so I signed up for an intensive, four-day-a-week Dutch language course.
And I’m almost always late.
I have basically always been a late person. My parents were late people and my brothers and I spent our childhoods being more-or-less always late for everything.
Now that I’m a parent myself, it’s easy to see how this sort of thing happens with kids. There’s so many things to do and the little ones are the opposite of helpful - of course you need your gloves, where did you put your gloves when you took them off yesterday?
It’s tempting to try to construct a list of reasons I am late to Dutch class, but they are frustratingly non-linear, a kind of Rube Goldbergian maze of indirect cause and approximate effect. “I’m late because the kid needed a lunch, so I didn’t get around to making coffee until after the bank called, therefore…”
At the root of it, being late is about an unlucky imbalance between my anticipatory preparations and reality. I was prepared for
X minutes of delays, but instead I was delayed
Y minutes, if
Y > X, then I am late.
Most often, I am bad at accounting for all the preparations, even if they seem obvious in retrospect. I have an app that forecasts travel time, but it refuses to tell me how long it takes to put my coat and shoes on. That part’s on me and I’m extremely not good at it.
I heard a story once – it’s probably not true, but I love it anyway – about an island, somewhere, where no one is ever on time. In this possibly fictional culture, it’s considered rude to say “I have to leave now”, because you are saying your next appointment is more important than the one you are in right now. If it’s rude to ditch early, you’re going to be late to everything. If this island really exists, I want to go to there.
Moving as often as I have probably carries a lot of the weight of my being late. It’s a lot easier to be sufficiently prepared when you know the drill, so to speak, and in every new place, you begin learning anew. By my third or fourth visit to the dentist, I should have finally internalized how much time I need to arrive on time, but then I’m probably about to move again, to repeat the trial-and-error process all over again.
My last therapist routinely asked about my routinely late arrival. In my case, it wasn’t that I was reluctant to turn up for therapy, but it might have been a Freudian signal of such a foot-dragging. It also wasn’t an executive disfunction that might’ve been a sign of deeper depression. But I appreciated the idea that my lateness might be a kind of diagnostic, anyway.
On some rare occasions, being late has serious consequences, but mostly, it’s not a big deal. I missed a flight once - my
X minutes early to the airport weren’t as many
Y as I needed to clear a freakishly long insecurity queue - but one missed flight in many years of travel didn’t prompt half as much introspection as I’m feeling now.
Of course, it’s mostly not a big deal because I’m demographically “lucky”. I’ve lived my whole life in non-fictional cultures where punctuality is polite, and, though I don’t do it intentionally as a “power play”, it seems I have been a rude person my whole life. But, as a white guy in a culture that’s extensively sexist and racist, my lateness is almost never an excuse someone has used to paper-over their bias. So, I’ve not been called a “lazy immigrant” or a “flighty ditz”, even when it’s applicable.
Even though we’re all fairly new to life in the Netherlands, my fellow students - most of whom are non-white, some of whom are literally refugees - are almost all more punctual than I am. Sure, I am one of the older students in this class, and maybe it’s easier to be on-time when you are still in your 20s, or when you don’t yet have parental responsibilities, but, while I’m not the only late person, it’s not as if all of the parents are late, or all of the late students are parents.
Mostly, though, being late to this class has me thinking about how different I am as a student in my forties than I was as a student in my teens or even twenties. In a way, I need this class more than I needed any of the classes I took in college, but I am significantly less focused on it. The lesser focus doesn’t mean I don’t care, though. With a kid and a job and a mortgage now, it’s probably impossible for any class to have the kind of to-the-exclusion-of-all-else focus that I had for school when I was younger.
… but, again, I was extremely lucky.
A long time ago, I was considered a “gifted” student and valedictorian with a college scholarship - and I think I worked hard for these labels - but I’m honestly not sure I worked as hard as the kids who had serious non-school responsibilities, like a grueling after-school job or a loved one to take care of.
In school, being late to class, on a test, or assignment - the kind of “late” which I regularly am now, not because I’m a “poor student” or “not hard working” or otherwise insufficiently dedicated, just because I am new here and have a whole lot of non-school shit to-do - might mean a lower letter-grade, possibly even zero points on an assignment. I mean, why isn’t there an award for the kid who worked an eight-hour shift after school every day? Heck, why is this kid being punished for it?
The mostly-but-not-entirely-accidental circumstances that surrounded me in my teens and twenties gave me mental and physical space that I could choose to focus on schooling. Not everyone gets that, but we grade students on their “performance” as if it were a level field. My
X = Y minutes for home-work were mostly because my parents’ home was quiet enough, and my responsibilities limited enough, that I actually had the time when I needed it.
I have taught classes, a long time ago, and as a life-long non-punctual person, I tried to be as gentle I could be with late students. But I have enormous sympathy for anyone teaching a class now, in 2019, with the invasion of technology happening in every classroom. I’m not sure how teachers compete with mobile phones, let alone deciphering all the competing educational platforms and tools. I’m sure it strengthens the sense that teaching is an under-appreciated occupation.
I may be biased, but I’m optimistic that maybe the expectation of punctuality might soon be a thing of the past. I mean, our pace of life seems to be constantly increasing, with “busy” becoming more and more common. The illusion of work or school (childhood, maybe even) as a magical oasis free from other responsibilities seems harder and harder to maintain these days. And while we might not all have kids, jobs, or mortgages, everybody has shit to do, some of which might have consequences more dire than being a few minutes late to class.