The key to success is a good alarm clock.

I made a deal with the students in my 10 a.m. writing class at UTC: Show up and do all the work, I told them, and there's an excellent chance that they will pass the course.

But — and this is key — they have to show up.

I told them that being late for a class — while not optimal — is less of a transgression than skipping class altogether.

I gave them a hypothetical example, "So let's say you wake up and realize that class starts in 10 minutes. What do you do? Shoot me a text. Even if you only catch the last 30 minutes of class, at least you are owning up to your mistake and doing your best to make the best of a bad situation."

I'm human. I know the temptation to roll over and turn off the alarm. But I also know it's a slippery slope.

If a student misses a class entirely, he or she may miss an assignment. It only takes a couple of missed assignments — aka zeros —to sink your grade. The phrase "better late than never" has been around for 800 years for a reason.

Show up. Do the work. It's a surprisingly durable life motto whether you are a student, a wage earner, or a parent.

Last semester, I didn't miss a single paper from a single student for the entire term. It felt like a victory. A few got point deductions for late work, yes, but nobody blew off an assignment entirely.

For years, I've tested out this theory with our two sons. My mantra to them when it comes to grades is: "No zeros."

I feel like young humans don't appreciate the difference in mere failure and quitting. We all fall short sometime, but quitting is optional.

If you don't believe there's a material difference in a 60 and zero, think of the numbers in terms of air temperature, and then imagine you are walking down Market Street in short sleeves. Same goes with grades: An F can be pulled up; a zero is dead weight.

One caveat to the "come-late-to-class" lesson: I sometimes take students aside to let them know that their tardiness is becoming a problem. Oversleeping is a mistake we've all made; chronic oversleeping is a character flaw.

At home, I am the human alarm clock. My phone chimes at 5:45 a.m., and by 6 a.m. I trudge up the steps to wake our two sons, ages 13 and 18.

The 18-year-old, thankfully, snaps awake. Only once or twice have I had to make a second pass at him. Waking him is like turning on a light switch. Barring a power outage, you can count on the light staying on.

The 13-year-old is another matter. He's a born negotiator. I have to go into his room and rub his head just to get him to open his eyes.

"What time is it?" he says immediately, as if there must be a mistake.

"It's 6 o'clock," I'll say. "Time to rise and shine."

"OK, two minutes," he'll say. "I'll be downstairs in two minutes."

Two minutes passes, then four. After 10 minutes, Nice Dad becomes Belligerent Dad: "Get up, kid," I shout up the stairwell. "This is your last call."

Before he goes off to college, we'll have the talk about what to do when you mess up and oversleep.

It's a lot like church: You have to confess and repent. Forgiveness is up to the professor.

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Mark Kennedy / Staff file photo

Contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645.