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A Tale of Two Clocks

by Nancy Clark
A clock should never be hung in the front of a classroom. At best that position breeds discontent; at worst, mischief. Before TV monitors and computer screens, it was the clock that drew our eyes and attention more often than the teacher or the chalkboard. One could stare right at it, almost transfixed, listen to the big ticks go by, and perhaps slide into a daydream. But when the time to be let out drew near, we were energized, like so many kernels of popcorn ready to burst.

In the old neighborhood grade school, it was the job of the schoolhouse janitor to check his big pocket watch and pull the rope to ring the tower bell that began and ended our school day. Twenty minutes before 9 a.m. the clang-clang, clang-clang resounded over the neighborhoods, calling all of us kids to walk to school. A single clang-clang marked 9 a.m. and the stroke of 3 p.m. as well.

In grade school we knew the exact times of freedom: for recesses, lunch (almost everyone walked home for lunch with their mothers), and dismissal. It was impossible to concentrate in those minutes just before release times; we alternately wiggled and watched the big clock, mentally pushing the minute hand to jump ahead just a bit sooner.

In our seventh grade year, it occurred to my friend Luanne that, with a little management of the clock, we could get the jump out the door ahead of all the other rooms at 3 o'clock. Her choice for implementing such time management was afternoon restroom break, when all of us went down three flights to the basement, where half was the boys side and half the girls side. Carl DeVry, our rugged and well-respected teacher, of course, accompanied the boys down one stairway, and the girls went down the other, entirely on their own.

That day, as soon as Mr. DeVry was in the basement, Luanne and a few pretenders to bravery ran back up all the stairs and into the room. Promptly, she climbed (in her skirt) to the top of the old upright piano, where she could reach the open-face clock and nudged the minute hand three minutes forward.

The next hour or so was delicious in anticipation. Only the girls knew the secret; by gender association, we were all claiming a part of the heroics, about to "put one over" on the boys as well as the teacher.

Just before 3 o'clock the entire class was ready to bolt from their desks, but, of course, no bell clanged at 3 p.m. by our clock. Finally, it was a boy who began the chorus of indignities: "Mr. DeVry, the bell's LATE!...It's a whole minute past three...The janitor fell asleep!...C'mon, Mr. DeVry, it's past time...Can we go?...How come the bell isn't ringing?...I got a baseball game...I got Camp Fire Girls...C'mon, it's almost two minutes late now!"

Mr. DeVry bought the case, and let us go. The next day, Luanne decided we needed just one more minute and repeated her act. By now the whole class knew and was ready to start pressure as soon as the minute hand crept past three. It worked again.

I wonder what age it is when we learn "when to stop." It is not seventh grade. One more minute would be just perfect; and Luanne, with some of us staunchly supporting her, climbed the piano again. But this time her "timing" failed.

"Luanne, what are you doing up there?" boomed Mr. DeVry, who had insightfully returned early to the room. Luanne put on a poker face and started to say something. "Just get down--now!" he ordered. Suddenly self-conscious, she tried to hold her skirt as she came down, and one foot slammed onto the bass notes of the keyboard, echoing the thunder in our teacher's voice. Now the boys were filing back into the room, taunting the girls with their smug "you got caught" laughter.

Luanne was directed to her seat. I don't remember her penalty; I'm sure she does. But we were all made to stay ten minutes past 3 o'clock, a total of six terrible, quiet minutes past the ringing of the dismissal bell.

The same push to get out of class that I remember as a student came back to plague me when I was on the other side of the desk. High school daily schedules are often altered for something special. A lot of kids were clueless on class-change times on the regular days, let alone special schedules. I became annoyed by my highschoolers, even well-meaning ones, asking, "What time do we get outta here?" Often, I suspected, someone asked just to hear the sound of his own voice, that particular voice being rare in classroom participation. With the first emergence of that question in each new class, I'd smile and say, "You haven't learned how to ask that question yet, have you? I'll answer you only if you ask correctly."

"How'm I s'posed to ask?"

"What you say is: 'How long do we get to stay?'" It always caught on--a quick lesson in positive word choices.

The idea of "how long we get to stay" was put to the supreme test one year, however, on a Monday, the first day of return to standard time after daylight saving time. That fall I had freshmen in first period General Business class, taught in a room belonging to another business teacher, Forrest Buck. The clock was (where else?) on the front wall, right above the teacher's desk.

Prior to my class, Forrest dashed about, collecting what he needed and trying to get out of my way. He glanced up, exclaiming, "Oh my, the janitors haven't changed my clock yet." Swiftly, he shoved the desk up to the wall, climbed atop it, and pulled open the face cover. A quick flashback of Luanne passed through my mind. He twirled the minute hand back an hour, closed the cover, and climbed down.

"All set! Just saved the janitor some work," he beamed, as he headed out the door. I mused how the janitor did not have to pull a rope to start and stop the school day.

My class of freshman, once settled, pulled out their homework and we began to cover it; all faced forward in their neat rows of seats. I was on the move back and forth across the front of the room and down some aisles, making eye-contact, prompting participation, frightening the laggards--management by walking around.

But fifteen minutes into the hour, I spotted some lack of focus. There was neighbor-nudging, frowning, increasing to whispering, and a spreading disregard for secondary education. Finally, holding on to a smile, I said, "OK, you guys, give me some clue about what's going on here."

One brave freshman hand went up. "Well, Mrs. Clark, it's the clock. It's going backwards."

"Oh, right," I said, thinking this was to be a grand prank. "And I suppose we'll all be getting younger by the minute."

But the chorus started in earnest: "No, really, Mrs. Clark...I been watching it...The minute hand is backing up...This way, we'll never get outta here...You gotta watch it...It's really going backwards." I watched, and they were right. Nothing can upend an exciting lesson in consumer economics like a clock running backwards. I gave way to settling their incredulity and mine with free-run laughter and sharing clock stories. I threw in Luanne's escapade.

"Let's keep this a secret from your next class," someone shouted; "it'll drive 'em crazy!" A second troup of freshmen in the same course were due second period. We swore to secrecy, and I salvaged what I could of my plan for the day.

"Don't tell, don't tell," some exhaled as they left the room, passing others coming in.

"The clock's wrong," shouted one of the newly seated bunch.

"Yes, I know," I said, "we'll just have to use my watch or yours."

I was alert for the reactions this time, spotting the first one to figure it out. Many started watching the clock anyway just as they usually did, even though they knew it wouldn't be the right time and would mean nothing to them. Sure enough, the first two to make eye contact about it were the ones who had once been the first to ask, "What time do we get outta here?"

The same gradual discontent began to spread, but this time I stopped it short and gave the first observer the honor, "Stan, let the whole class know what you were the first to discover, so we can all see it, believe it, and move on." Stan not only proudly announced that time was running backward, but, empowered by his moment in the spotlight, managed some actual contributions to class beyond that.

I never could find a mechanical explanation for how that clock could run backwards, nor could I ever let Mr. Buck forget that he was the only person I ever knew who could reverse the flow of time.

I can only think, after these two tales, how eager we frequently are to spend time straining to either force time forward--or bid it return. In either case, we sacrifice something very important: we miss the essence of time present, an awareness of now. Emily in Thornton Wilder's Our Town asks the critical question: "Do human beings ever realize life while they live it, every, every minute?"

The answer is no, at least not by watching minute hands. Let clocks always be placed in the back of classrooms.

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