"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
June 7, 2012
On Time
by Orson Scott Card

I was all set for my presentation at the Young Women leadership training meeting. I had a great lesson, with handouts and everything.

But as I walked up to the house, about three minutes before seven p.m., the Laurel class president came out and headed for her car.

Only then did a vague memory resurface. This meeting wasn't at seven o'clock at all. It was at ... five.

It was over. I was arriving at the end.

And here I had worked very hard to make sure that I arrived absolutely on time! No foolish virgin here -- I had my cruse full of oil!

Let's face it. Sometimes you're late. Sometimes you get the wrong information; sometimes you write it down wrong. Traffic was tied up by an accident. Your car breaks down. There's an emergency. Lateness happens.

But if it happens every week, then something is seriously wrong.

I've often heard Mormons talk proudly of how we train our young people to run meetings, so that in adult life, any Mormon can take charge of any meeting without a moment's notice.

And it's true. I've seen it; I've done it. The person in charge isn't there, or isn't functioning. Nothing is happening. So the Mormon in the room says, "Let's go ahead and get started."

Leadership. We can do it in our sleep.

Or can we?

Here's the problem. It's cool that we Mormons are ready to take over any meeting when there's a power vacuum. But why is it that when there's no power vacuum, when it's our meeting, we so often run it as if we were taken completely by surprise?

You know what I mean. The meeting where somebody looks at the clock, realizes we're already ten minutes late getting started, and quickly stands up and calls on somebody to pray.

Haven't I just described the opening of half the priesthood meetings in the Church? And a considerable portion of the other meetings run by men, I suspect.

In fact, we men seem to take pride in the fact that we throw things together at the last second. It's almost as if there's something unmanly about being as prepared as Relief Society and Young Women and Primary leaders are.

What's next? Visual aids in priesthood meeting? Get a grip. We're men.

President Hinckley went to the opposite extreme. People called to attend a leadership or training meeting were told in no uncertain terms to show up twenty minutes early, because President Hinckley liked to start then.

But in my opinion, that's identical to simply announcing a starting time that's twenty minutes earlier. It's no longer a 7:00 meeting, it's a 6:40 meeting. The key question is: Does it start, then, at 6:40?

Announced meeting times are contracts. You promise to offer something of value between 7:30 and 8:30. Other people then arrange their schedules so they can travel to the meeting and be there at the start.

But if you start even three minutes late, you've already punished the people who arrived on time and rewarded the ones who came late, because the on-time arrival resulted in three lost minutes.

Whatever you had to offer, they'll now get three minutes less of it.

Because surely you're not going to compound the sin of starting late by running over!

They have other things to do, other places to go. The ending time is as much a contract as the starting time.

What really brought the contract of punctuality home to me was stores that open late or close early.

I once drove fifteen minutes to get to a bookstore before closing time. I got there at five minutes to nine -- and the door was locked. The employees, who were still inside cleaning up, refused to notice me.

Fast food restaurants do it shockingly often -- you come to the door five minutes before closing and the chairs are already stacked on the tables. Never mind the sign on the door -- they're done, and you're out of luck.

Then there was the morning that I got to the local gardening center to pick up the plants I was going to put in the ground that morning, only to find the front gate still locked ten minutes after the announced opening time. I waited there for five minutes, then ran other errands.

When I came back an hour later, I asked why they had been late starting. "Oh, were we late?" asked the manager.

Maddening. I felt like they were shoplifters -- they had picked my pocket -- they had stolen my time.

Then I realized that when I start a meeting or rehearsal late, or run on past the ending time, I'm the pickpocket, the shoplifter, the thief of time.

Here's the remarkable thing. If you actually start on time -- even if the people are trained to arrive late -- you might get some shocked looks the first time, but people learn very quickly.

They get there early, because they know that when you say ten o'clock, you mean ten, straight up, no fudge factor to allow latecomers to come in and take their seats.

And on the other side, the only way we can make our three-hour blocks work is if meetings end on time. When someone raises a hand or starts a comment right at the end of class, you have to say, "I wish we could hear what you have to say, but our time is up."

And at the end of the third hour, on-time endings mean that Primary children will get picked up quickly at the end of class, allowing the Primary teachers to get home with their families.

Isn't that a radical idea? Courtesy to everyone.

When I arrived at the end of that training meeting, I didn't expect them to wait around to hear my presentation. The meeting was over. It had gone well, and they had done it all without me.

Anything I had to say could wait till another time.

Whenever you're tempted to run over because what you have to say is so important that it can't wait, remember that there's always another Sunday, always another meeting. Your vivid, wonderful idea will get said later.

Punctuality is part of courtesy. It's part of honor. We said we would follow this schedule, and so we will. Thus we increase the amount of happiness in the world.

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More by Orson Scott Card

About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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