Better Late Than Never

Submitted into Contest #137 in response to: Write about a character who gets called an Einstein ironically.... view prompt


Coming of Age


                                               By David L. Elkind      

            About a Character Who Ironically Gets Called an Einstein

Bill Jensen thought that high school was an inconvenience. He had several priorities in life. None involved school. While he was home, music was always blaring from his room. It was the mid-1970s, and the music that Bill listened to would later be called classic rock. He had a large collection of vinyl record albums. The collection was particularly impressive since Bill had little money, but he learned to compensate for that shortcoming. When Bill was in tenth grade, he developed a particular skill in helping himself to free records. He would purchase a shopping bag at Sears for 25 cents – his sole investment - then walk across the street to Macy’s and head to its record department. He usually helped himself to one album at a time. Occasionally two. The one time that he got greedy and took three albums, it almost cost him dearly. A store clerk looked at his bulging bag suspiciously. Deciding that the best defense was a good offense, Bill looked at her sharply and, speaking loudly, snarled, “What?” He had intimidated her. Not wanting a confrontation, she sulked away. Bill then soon got his first part-time job. He learned that money makes a bad thief. His shoplifting days were over.

Bill also enjoyed sports. He loved the three major sports – football, baseball and basketball - and followed teams and players in each sport. He read most of the newspaper every day quickly, until he came to the sports section, which he pored through in minute detail. Bill had a facility with numbers, and was familiar with many sports statistics, most of which were very trivial in importance.

Bill’s relationship with his father Don, was tense. The only times that they had detailed conversations without acrimony involved sports. The Jensens had little money and could rarely go to a game, but Bill and his father watched many events on TV, and spoke freely about the games or other sports issues. They never discussed how either was feeling emotionally. From a personal point of view, they knew little about each other.

Bill loved playing sports. He was 6 feet tall and a skinny 160 pounds. With thick, wavy brown hair and hazel eyes, he looked athletic despite his weight, and he was skilled in every sport that he played. His efforts to participate in team sports in school, however, met with failure. He tried out for football in his sophomore year of high school, and would have been a wide receiver, but one day he got into a vigorous argument with his coach after he leaped but could not catch a pass, and the coach criticized him in front of the team. Rather than holding in his anger, Bill angrily disputed what the coach said, and the argument escalated, until a frustrated Bill finally said, “Fuck you.” The coach told Bill that he was off the team, and Bill replied that he was quitting in any event, which ended his football career. That spring Bill was running a hurdles race in track and field and was comfortably in the lead when he pulled a thigh muscle jumping over the fifth hurdle. The track coach knew little about rehabilitating injuries, and did nothing to help Bill. Midway through the season, he criticized Bill for not being able to participate with the team. Again, Bill would not back down. “Since you did nothing to help me rehabilitate my hamstring, how the hell can you complain about the fact that I can’t run now?” he asked angrily. That was the end of his track career. Bill’s problems with Don had spawned a deep mistrust of authority. His failed experience with sports only fueled that mistrust. His days of participating in team sports at school had ended.

Bill’s other major activity involved smoking marijuana with his friends. He rarely went two days without getting high. Sometimes he partook during school. His biggest concern when he smoked pot was that there would be a ready supply of sweet “munchies” nearby. When he got high during school, that required skipping a class to go to a local diner for a pastry or some ice cream. Satisfying his hunger was far more important than attending a meaningless class.

Despite his problematic relationship with Don, Bill’s enjoyment of life was unfettered by conflict with his parents. By the time he got to high school, his parents had abdicated any role in monitoring his activities or placing any restraints on him. Bill had no curfew, and was free to come and go as he pleased. The only relevant comment that he received from his parents came when he brought home a mediocre report card and Don would simply say, “You know that you can do better.” Bill, eager to avoid conflict, would nod his head without speaking. That was the end of their discussion. Don never asked why Bill wasn’t doing better, and Bill never offered an explanation. Bill eventually would regal his parents on Sunday morning with tales of his exploits the night before. Rather than criticize his activities, his parents usually laughed. When he thought about it, Bill realized that he was raising himself. He wasn’t doing a good job of it, but Bill didn’t care. He cared only about the present. He had no future orientation. All that he cared about was having fun now. He was succeeding at satisfying that desire.

The biggest reason for Bill’s failure in school concerned homework. He didn’t do any after elementary school. His teachers were unaware of his excellent standardized test scores. All that they knew was that when he was called on to state something about the prior night’s homework assignment, he had nothing to say. This frustrated all of his teachers. In some classes, like social studies, Bill could often state his views without reading the homework assignment. He got better grades in those classes. His teachers knew that he was intelligent, but they assumed that he was a screw-up.     

This all boiled over one day senior year in his English literature class. The teacher, Ms. Kelly, an unsmiling teacher well past retirement age, was grilling Bill about the Miller’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales. Ms. Kelly rarely raised her voice, but her natural demeanor included a face that was creased by a perpetual frown as she often spewed sarcastic disapproval of a student’s comments. Bill was able to fake it through the first few questions, but when the questions turned to substantive aspects of the reading, he was clueless. His standard response was, “I don’t know.” After a few questions, it was clear that he hadn’t read the assignment. Rather than turning to another students to get answers to her questions, Ms. Kelly repeatedly asked Bill questions about the reading, as if she wanted to humiliate him in front of the class. Her tactic was working, as Bill’s voice progressively got weaker while he failed to answer each question. Finally, Ms. Kelly had enough.

“I don’t know whether you simply couldn’t do the reading or chose not to,” she said, “but it doesn’t really matter. You should be ashamed, Mr. Jensen, because you are a failure. Now sit down, Einstein.”

Bill was embarrassed and could feel his face turning red. He heard the titters of some of his classmates. He wanted to tell Ms. Kelly what she could do with her comments, but he knew that she would retaliate by give him a failing grade in the class. That would force him to repeat the class during summer school, and jeopardize his chance of attending the one college that had accepted him. He showed common sense, which was uncommon for him, and nodded before sitting down. His control paid off when Ms. Kelly surprisingly gave him a C grade.

The day before his graduation, Bill told his mother that he would be going out with his friends that night instead of going to graduation. “A high school diploma means nothing,” he said. “Nothing matters until you get to college.”

His mother shocked him with her reaction. “It does matter,” she said sternly. “You’re going to your graduation. We never thought that you’d get this far.”

Bill went to his graduation only after he got high and drank beer with his close friends, all of whom were also going to be at the graduation. This caused Bill to lose any inhibition that he might have had about how he acted during the ceremony. The big secret was that the envelope that every student was handed during the ceremony was empty. They would get their diplomas only after they returned their caps and gowns the next day. When Bill’s name was called, he was handed his envelope as he walked across the stage. Rather than continue to walk, Bill paused, opened the envelope and turned it upside down. When he shook it and nothing came out, he shrugged his shoulders. The audience howled with laughter. He looked to the side and saw the anger in the principal’s eyes while the assistant principal covered her mouth to keep from laughing out loud. Bill winked at them as he walked to the end of the stage.

Bill found out from his younger sister Jenny that Don assumed that Bill would flunk out of school during his first semester in college. That view was almost prescient. Bill rarely did homework, and pulled two all-nighters during the last three days of testing to escape with a low B – high C average, similar to his high school performance. Bill had enjoyed his first semester. He had made several friends with whom he regularly smoked pot, had successfully chased a couple of women with whom he had fun, and generally enjoyed himself. His grades weren’t good, but they were similar to how he had done in high school, and he felt that he had made a seamless transition to college, although with a rough finish to the semester.

Then he had a harsh lesson that made him realize how much of a failure he had been. Three days before school started, the bill for the spring semester came. It hit Bill like a blast from an explosion, like a ton of bricks. He realized that by attending school, he was putting himself deeply into debt. It made no sense to continue unless he was ready to take school seriously to justify the expense. It was time to grow up and act like a young adult, not like a party boy who lived for the moment and didn’t care about the future. He read all of his homework assignments that semester, and dedicated up to three hours of each day to study. He did well on his midterms, but was determined to do even better on his finals. He studied harder. Early in the semester he had cut back on the frequency when he got high. After midterms, he cut it out completely. He sailed through the first four finals. The last one, in English literature, had a major essay on the Canterbury Tales. Bill had read the book and had re-read many parts, including the Miller’s Tale, a second time. He felt that he had done well on the exam.

When he called his parents to arrange to come home for the summer, Don asked him how he had done on his exams. Bill was purposefully understated. “I think that I did okay,” he said. “Probably better than fall semester. But the proof will come when I get my grades.”

Bill was home on a Saturday a month later when he received his grades. He said nothing, but went to his room and closed the door. After he saw his grades, he broke into a wide smile. He went downstairs wearing a plain poker face, and walked up to Don, who was sitting on the couch, reading a book. “My grades came,” Bill said.

“How did you do?” Don asked.

“Not bad,” Bill said. “See for yourself.” He handed the grade sheet to Don. Don looked at the grades for a moment, then his eyes opened wide while a wide grin crossed his mouth. “Yes. You did it,” he said. “Straight As. This is incredible.” He gave Bill a big hug. Bill thought that he could see tears in Don’s eyes. He realized that as thrilled as he was to see the grades, he was even more thrilled to see his father’s reaction. He realized how happy he was to have gained Don’s approval.

“What do you want to do to celebrate?” Don asked.

Bill had no idea what he wanted to do, but then a thought struck him and he realized that it was brilliant. “Why don’t we go out tonight, just you and me for some beers,” he said. “We’ve never done this before. Let’s plow new ground, and hopefully set a precedent.”

“Sounds great,” Don said. They went out for hours, and talked deeply about their feelings concerning a host of topics. Bill almost felt that they were overcompensating for their failure to have any similar discussion before, but he was thrilled. When they got home and had walked to the main floor, Bill and Don hugged. Don said, “I love you,” something Bill hadn’t heard since he was an infant. “I love you too, Dad,” he said. Bill turned away so Don couldn’t see the tears that were rapidly forming in his eyes. “Goodnight, Dad,” he said and walked upstairs. After he closed his door, the tears flowed like water. He knew that they were tears of joy, and he felt even better than he had felt when he saw his grades and got Don’s reaction.

August 20 was a hot Monday. It was one week before college started and 15 days before public school started on the day after Labor Day. On a lark, Bill drove to the high school. He walked through the halls, past his old locker and past a corridor of classrooms. He took a left, and turned to the right. Mrs. Kelly’s door was open, and she was working hard, preparing for school. He walked in as she looked up at him as he said hello.

“Hello Mr. Jensen,” she said with a note of formality that accompanied her unpleasant voice. “How was your first year of college?”

“It went fairly well,” he said calmly.

“Were your grades satisfactory?” she asked.

“I think so. Do you remember in class when I was unprepared, and after I couldn’t answer a series of your questions about the Miller’s Tale, you said that I should be ashamed, then you told me to sit down and you sarcastically called me Einstein?”

 She had a blank look for a second, then a look of recognition crossed her face. “Yes, I remember that,” she said with concern as she waited warily for his next statement.

“My first semester, I pretty much followed the pattern that I had established during high school,” he said. “I pulled a couple of all-nighters and escaped with three B grades and two Cs.”

“As I recall, that was consistent with your high school performance,” she said.

“That’s right,” he said. “Then the bills came right before second semester and I realized that it didn’t make sense to go into debt unless I was ready to do the work.”

“Good,” she said. “I’m glad to hear that this understanding hit you before you got too far into college for it to help. I hope that you’re going to tell me that you got no Cs second semester.”

“I didn’t,” he said, with an expressionless face. For the first time since he’d known her, Bill saw a slight smile across her face.

“I take it that you got mostly Bs, perhaps with an A or two,” she asked hopefully.

“Well, not quite,” Bill said, looking reserved. Ms. Kelly couldn’t hide a look of disappointment.

Bill finally smiled. “Actually, I didn’t get any Bs,” he said triumphantly. “I got straight As.”

Ms. Kelly had a look of shock on her face, then she grinned broadly, a look that Bill couldn’t imagine before. “Yes,” she shouted. She practically leaped across her desk as she hugged Bill. When she finally stopped, the smile looked as though it would never leave her face. “I’m so proud of you. I sensed that when you were in my class, you didn’t give a shit. Pardon my language,” she said apologetically. This time it was Bill’s turn to show surprise. “I felt that you were bright, but that it would take a spark for you to step up. That’s why I embarrassed you in my class. I wanted to piss you off enough so that you’d be motivated to reach your potential.”

“It took a while, but I finally got there,” he said. “I’m never going back. I guess it’s okay to be a late bloomer as long as the bloom finally comes before it’s too late.” He broke into a broad smile. “By the way,” he said, “I loved when Absolon burned Nicholas’ rear in the Miller’s Tale, but the one who gets the worst of it is that fool John. I’ve already thought of a way to modernize the story and see what it looks like.”

“Excellent,” she said, grinning broadly. “There’s a French saying that applies to you. Mieux vaut tard que jamais.”

“Better late than never,” he said. They hugged warmly.     

March 13, 2022 17:31

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Sharon Hancock
00:36 Mar 21, 2022

Really bright kids get bored easily in school sometimes. It was nice to see him grow to understand himself. Thanks for submitting this! I enjoyed reading it,😻


David Elkind
19:32 Mar 21, 2022

Dear Ms. Hancock, Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comments about my story. In many respects, much of the story was autobiographical. I was a late bloomer and finally took charge of my life in college. I recently retired after a successful legal career, but now I volunteer, because I feel blessed and have the desire to give back. It's been a great life. Best, Dave Elkind


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Jeannette Miller
16:52 Mar 19, 2022

This story felt like a laundry list of details about Bill's life until he goes to college and begins to interact more with the other characters. It took me until then to feel connected in any way or care about his character. The indifference Bill has toward life and the people in his life was so well written, I guess, it bled over to me. I look forward to reading some of your other stories :)


David Elkind
19:10 Mar 19, 2022

Dear Ms. Mickenham, Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comments about my story, As you correctly noted, my goal was to show Bill as an empty person living for the moment until he was in college and finally matured. I hate to admit it, but the story is largely autobiographical. My experiences have made me sympathetic to late bloomers. Best, Dave Elkind


Jeannette Miller
19:15 Mar 19, 2022

I'm glad you bloomed! I appreciate the title to the story as well as I believe in the idea of better late than never and it's never too late. There are many talented people who bloomed later in life. Thank you for sharing your story.


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