By Reeve Chudd
John Henry Belker was habitually late, including for his own birth. His mother’s delivery of John was medically induced after she endured over ten months carrying him. His parents, Homer and Dorothy Belker, were former flower children and marginally successful writers who worked at home, never wore a timepiece and never instilled in their son the character trait of punctuality. They lived and remained in Homer’s family home in Meshoppen, Pennsylvania (population approximately 400), in the northeast part of the state on the Susquehanna River.
Further, throughout John’s early years, he was often tardy because his chauffeuring parents made him so, and they schooled him in their ubiquitous practice of being “fashionably late” to appointments, parties, gatherings and other social commitments.
Fortunately, as writers, John’s parents were particularly clever and creative in writing numerous “late excuses” for him to present to authorities upon his arrival. Since being late didn’t cause his parents to expedite their actions nor to appear to be frustrated or contrite with the preparation or presentation of these constant excuses, John never felt that it was a character flaw, at least, not until he attended Elk Lake Senior High School in nearby Springville, where the student-teacher ratio was about 6-to-1, so that any student entering a classroom after the tolling of the late bell could not avoid notice.
For his first class in his freshman year, John had Ms. Penelope Worswick for English. Ms. Worswick had emigrated from Exeter, England, having married an American doctoral candidate studying at the University there. She was trim, petite, and wore skirts which revealed her shapely legs, which were instrumental in maintaining the attention of her male students Her ponytail and soft features belied the fiercely short temper of a disciplinarian.
On the first day of classes, as John entered three minutes late, Ms. Worswick was interrupted from her introductory remarks to the class of seven (now eight, with John) students. “And who are you, entering my class late? Do you realize how rude and disrespectful your tardy entry is to me and your fellow students? Are you aware of the schedule for this class?” She, or course, pronounced “schedule” with the British “sch” instead the American “sk,” just as did her Brits across the Pond.
“Uh, I’m John Belker, ma’am,” John sheepishly offered, “This is my first day here, and I had trouble finding the room.”
“Mr. Belker,” she replied, “that excuse will work this one time only. Henceforth, should you arrive late to class, you can expect to be the first person I call upon to answer a question, and if you are not prepared to answer correctly, your final grade in the class will suffer. Do you understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” muttered John with his head down, and he took his seat in the circle. His classmates, aware of John’s proclivity from his previous behavior in middle school, collectively raised their eyebrows and looked at each other, the silent body language of “Whoa!”
Ms. Worswick proceeded to explain the class curriculum and handed out the syllabus of assignments. “The first semester, we shall be examining punctuation, learning vocabulary, writing different page paragraph essays to demonstrate the several types, such as expository, narrative and argumentative pieces and, finally, analyzing the copy on your desk of Shakespeare’s historical tragedy, Macbeth. Regarding Shakespeare, I expect all of you to have read the first five scenes of Act One by next Monday. Until then we shall be talking about Shakespeare’s life and why his writings have endured and been studied for centuries. The syllabus notes whether written homework is to be turned in and when. If homework is not turned in timely, it will receive zero credit. If you are late to a class where homework is to be submitted on my desk by the class’s beginning, the homework itself will be considered late. Is that clear, Mr. Belker?”
Shocked by being called upon again, John blurted out “Yes, ma’am.”
That evening at dinner, John explained to his parents about the tyrant teaching his English class. His father told him that uptight people such as this teacher put out negative energy and ruins one’s enjoyment of life. John’s mother told him that Ms. Worswick would probably mellow as the school year progressed. Even so, John exhibited new efforts to gain his seat in English before the late bell in the weeks that followed. Fortunately for him, he could walk the half-mile distance to the high school without even forcing his parents out of bed.
Five weeks into the semester, John had only been late on four occasions. Further, he had demonstrated that, because of his parents’ love of literature, he was far more well-read than his classmates and excelled in not only vocabulary but also writing structure and punctuation. It appeared to him and his classmates that Ms. Worswick had softened her opinion of him, other her usual displeasure with his infrequent late arrivals and, when he had been late, his answers to the teacher’s initial questions had been sufficiently astute to have dispelled the stain of tardiness.
Unfortunately, by the sixth week of the semester, John had become addicted to the computer game Rampage and, much to the consternation of his parents, he’d play online with others deep into the late hours, causing him to oversleep and, consequently, rekindle his late appearances just as the class became deeply involved with Macbeth.
Out of frustration and feeling the need for a more retributory punishment for John, Ms. Worswick devised a plan. One morning, immediately after the late bell rang without John’s presence, she quickly passed out paper to the students present. Attached to the paper was a small yellow sticky note which read:
This will be an experiment to teach John Belker a lesson. There will be a trick question on the blackboard for a surprise quiz. When John arrives, each of you should be feverishly writing your answer to the question. It doesn’t matter what you write; just that he sees all of you writing as if you know the answer. Please help me do this to encourage John to be on time.
On the blackboard, she had written the following:
Describe the importance of the Earl of Salisbury to the rule of King Duncan and why his relationship with Lady Macbeth is so crucial to her husband’s attainment of the crown. 10 minutes.
John entered the classroom four minutes after the late bell. Ms. Worswick held her right index finger to her lips, pointing upward, indicating silence, and then handed John a piece of paper and pointed to the blackboard question. John saw that all of the other students were writing extensive answers to the question, and he began to panic.
“Four minutes remaining,” said Ms. Worswick as she looked at her wristwatch. The other students, obviously enjoying the ruse, accelerated their writing to gain the appearance of coming to a conclusion. John appeared lost.
“Ninety seconds!” Ms. Worswick announced.
Finally, as if an inspiration had popped into his head, John smiled and nodded, and he began writing as fast as he could.
“Stop writing!” she bellowed, and swiftly collected the writings of each of the students. “That includes you, Mr. Belker.”
Stone faced, John handed his paper to her, and then hung his head as if in shame.
When the passing bell sounded and the students immediately rose from their seats, Ms. Worswick hurried to instruct them: “Tomorrow will be the vocabulary quiz for the month. Please be prepared. Mr. Belker, please stay behind for a moment.”
John dutifully waited until the last classmate had exited. Ms. Worswick retrieved John’s writing from the surprise quiz and quickly viewed it. It said:
I’m sorry for being late. I’ll try harder to be on time. I know that the purpose of this quiz was to scare me, and I know that you can give me a bad grade because of my behavior. I learned the lesson you wanted me to understand.
Incidentally, the Earl of Salisbury does not appear in Macbeth, only in Richard II and Henry VI. Again, I promise to try harder to be in my seat on time.
Ms. Worswick raised her gaze to meet John’s. Her smile was one of reluctant admiration. “See that you do, Mr. Belker.”
* * *
Reeve Chudd is a retired trusts and estates attorney from Los Angeles, now residing in Carmel, Indiana. He wanted to become a professional writer, but he didn’t want to sacrifice eating. His four university degrees, when added to $4.65, will purchase a grande latte at Starbucks. He is on FaceBook, but no other social media.