After 15 minutes, we’re legally allowed to leave

If you ever attended public school at any point for your education, there’s a pretty good chance you may have heard this truism at some point. In elementary school, middle school, and high school, there were always whispers of this “rule” that “they” didn’t want students to know about. And on the days when everyone found themselves waiting outside a locked classroom, these whispers became full discussions.

– If the teacher isn’t here for 15 minutes, we’re legally allowed to leave.

– Wait, really?

– Yeah, it’s a law. As long as we wait 15 minutes we can leave.

Now I have absolutely no idea where this originated. I have no idea how it came to spread seemingly everywhere. And, most important, I have no idea how it continues to exist!

Of course, there really isn’t any truth to this at all. Barring some highly specific ordinances or rules local to a particular city or school district (because who knows? Maybe there is something somewhere), there aren’t any laws about when students are allowed to leave. That’s just not how it works. But for a bunch of underage students, it almost seemed like there was some logic in the saying. And for minors who almost always found themselves drawing the short straw when it came to the law, this urban legend was a nice thing to believe in. So I can understand why it was so often repeated in those school settings.

But what I am baffled by is the fact that as a university instructor, I have still heard this saying from college students. People who are quite literally (and legally) full adults somehow still find themselves holding onto this misguided belief that there is some law that says something about teachers and waiting for 15 minutes.

The other day, I overheard some of my students discussing this very thing before class started. Normally I only half-listen to the conversations that take place before class, not feeling the need to interject my self. But this time, I just couldn’t help myself. A few students were talking about how their professor for another class hadn’t shown up, and about how everyone was waiting outside the classroom counting down those 15 minutes.

“Sorry, I hate to eavesdrop but I just have to say something here. You do realize that’s not a thing, right?”

These students were absolutely baffled. They were adamant that if they hadn’t waited the 15 minutes before leaving, they could have gotten into trouble. But by waiting the full time, they were somehow protected by the law. Or at least, that was their logic.

I explained that they’re all adults. There’s nothing forcing them to be anywhere. And if a college instructor were to stop them from leaving the room, arguably that would actually be kidnapping. “If you were to all stand up and walk out in the middle of my class, there really isn’t anything I could do.”

This seemed to surprise them.

I continued, “and honestly, I’m not sure I would want to do anything. I still get paid regardless of if you actually come to class.”

I’m glad that I was able to clarify this urban legend for at least a few students, but I’ve still been thinking about this moment for a few days. Why is it that this belief has persisted for so long? With near-ubiquitous Web access, it’s not like it would be difficult to fact-check this belief.

But, perhaps more interestingly, how did this belief become so widespread? The students in this class come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and I’d estimate that about 95% of them had heard the “15 minute rule” at least once beforehand. How is this so? Somehow this one belief became nearly-universal for all public school students. And for many people, it was spreading well-before the Internet was as widespread as it is today. And yet somehow this belief seemingly “went viral.”

Toss that on the list of potential side-projects, I guess. Offline/analogue memes – were they really all that different than the online ones? I suspect not…

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