We did late dockets in our secondary school. There are variations elsewhere, I know – late slips (why dockets in ours, I’m not sure, unless it was along the lines of the ‘shifts’ in Synge’s Playboy of the Western World and they feared revolt amongst the demure young ladies of the school), black marks, late marks, points, minus points, demerits, order marks for your form (though I think that one might have only existed in the land of Enid Blyton). The trick was to be let off the hook by the receptionist, pleading some kind of crisis – or to sneak past if she was away from the front desk for a moment.
Of course, despite the late docket – the proof that you’d already been chastised, reprimanded, and had clocked up one more mark against yourself – some of the teachers would still frown and demand an explanation. Parents were often blamed, especially in those pre-Junior Cert years when they could be held responsible for so many things, before the Leaving Cert era of ‘it’s your future – it’s up to you’. Others, conscious of limited time in the classroom, skipped over such things and moved on with the class. If you accumulated enough of these dockets, you received the particularly apt punishment of early morning detention – an hour before school began on Friday morning.
It was understood that being late was something to be avoided, but as the years crept by it mattered less. A couple of the girls in the school had their own cars, and could talk about traffic and/or car trouble in terribly grown-up terms as they stood in their crest-adorned jumper and pleated skirt explaining why they were late. It started seeming like something ridiculous, to be given out for being late. As the exams drew closer it became more common to arrive after a first class had ended, if it wasn’t a favourite. For the exams themselves, of course, we were on time, there was no question about that – and if parents had been lax or treating their offspring like responsible human beings during the year, they were taking no chances with the almighty Leaving Cert.
In college, that great world of freedom beyond the walls of uptight schools, it was possible to skip classes entirely (depending on one’s course and institution, of course), and certainly it was inevitable that the first seven minutes of any lecture would be punctuated with shuffling latecomers finding a space – sometimes including the lecturer themselves. If you were meeting someone for coffee, the text message to let you know they’d been delayed was a not-uncommon experience. And then out in the alleged real world it was more of the same – I’ve never been to a talk that’s started at its designated time, never known a concert or stand-up comedy routine to begin anywhere close to the ‘show’ time on a ticket. Theatres are usually a little bit better – I was at the Gate recently and there were apologies to the audience for being kept waiting three minutes. People looked at their watches in bewilderment.
It is, of course, considered something of a social faux-pas to arrive at someone’s house within half an hour of the given time, unless food is being served. And if you’re meeting people for pints, unless it’s within ten minutes of their workplace and their designated workday, you’d be a fool to turn up on time. I’ve done more than my fair share of sitting at the bar, looking intently at my phone, trying to exude an air of aloofness rather than desperation, wondering why seven o’clock really means half-past eight and whether this should be something taught in schools when they’re teaching you how to read the time.
At work meetings and other engagements one is generally expected to arrive on time, but not early, and in fact it’s often proof of one’s busyness and importance if you’re late – so many people to see, so many things to sort out, so little time! I remember adults always seeming very busy, very busy indeed, when I was growing up, but I wonder whether it’s worse now – with the various things to occupy us (we need to keep up with our email, with our phone, with what the Internet is saying, now now now now) and various ways of letting people know that we will be delayed.
At twenty-five I see myself slipping into it more and more – the feeling that actually it isn’t worth apologising for being five minutes late, because no one else does. How terribly childish and schoolgirlish – no one’s going to hand out a late docket, we’re so beyond that. Turning up on time doesn’t mark you as an organised person – it’s an indicator of how little else you must have to do, what a leisurely life you must lead. Aren’t we all too busy to remember that there’s always traffic this time of day, or that we meant to get back to someone? Deadlines? Prioritise, bargain your way to extensions, plead whatever you need to – it’s just what has to be done. Who bothers praising punctuality? That’s one of the things in a reference that means they don’t have anything else to say, isn’t it?
But I do wonder – if we all had some equivalent to that early-morning detention, that needing to reorganise our schedule, no excuses, so that we absolutely simply had to be somewhere well before a time that had consistently proved such a hardship – what would happen.