Standing Up in Slow Time

In 9/11's aftermath, integrity and character clock in at eternal

Illustration of a person looking up a spiral wood staircase.

There are 37 time zones on the planet and over 7.6 billion people, the number on the population clock increasing by 23 from the time I started that sentence until I reached that first comma, something that makes me dizzy and headachy and anxious.

With that number of time zones and that many people, it stands to reason there may be millions of people living on the cusp of two zones. That’s disappointing, as I like to think our little Kentucky community is unique in that regard, but clearly it isn’t. Personally, I don’t know any other people who function in two zones. The Gambier time zone and the Pitcairn Standard zone may be adjacent, but it seems less likely that travel back and forth between those zones presents the same challenges we face here on the threshold of the Central Standard Time and Eastern Standard Time.

For instance, in addition to learning how to tell time, children here quickly become attuned to making mental calculations that allow for the required adjustments of moving from one zone to the other. Proximity dictates frequent passage between the zones, for work, school, shopping, ballgames, movies, life itself. And, of course, the person you most need or want to see is always in the zone where you are not. Just as the shrimp living in the depths of Mammoth Cave have evolved to blindness due to the absence of light, so have we reached a state whereby the use of the terms fast time and slow time have become so ingrained that our ears hear those terms even when other more precise language is used. Some time back I tried an experiment, concentrating efforts toward precision, even allowing for seasonal changes, e.g., “So, we’re meeting at 7 p.m. Eastern Daylight Saving Time,” which would consistently be confirmed with “Yes, 7 fast time.” Occasionally this would morph into my time or your time. For the unindoctrinated, the translation is that fast time connotes the Eastern Time Zone and slow time means Central Time. There are also variations, such as County Time, which means the time in whatever county you’re standing in at that moment.

It always evoked a tiny bit of pleasure that I could leave work and arrive home before the time I left, by the clocks. Of course, conversely, my 15-minute commute took me an hour and 15 minutes by clock time in the morning. Oh, lord, the clocks. No visitor to my home would ever know the time by looking at a clock because I steadfastly refused to change the clocks to reflect standard and daylight saving time, waiting until the inevitable power outage and making the necessary corrections once electricity was restored. Or not. Over time, mentally correcting the clocks became a kind of game and something I liked to think might require enough cognition to ultimately keep me out of the nursing home.

If we’d been without power for 14 minutes, I learned to make the calculation of the lost time and adjust for daylight saving or standard times. The clock on my nightstand on a June night might say 9:14, but in reality it would be 10:48, adjusting not only for springing forward in March but for that storm we had in May when the electricity was off for 34 minutes. All my clocks were different, reflecting how one may have been unplugged to accommodate Christmas lights or someone’s charger. While I knew how to read the faces of each clock the way some moms read the faces of their children, my guests never caught on to this and ultimately even stopped whining and sighing as they learned to look to their own wrists when needing the time. In a splendid show of solidarity with my other confused timepieces, the grandfather clock in my dining room ran down on the day my momma died and still refuses to restart. All this serves to remind me how fluid time is as it quicksilvers its way into eternity, mocking all us mortals trying to capture it in a bottle. That being said, I respectfully ask you to please not get me started on sun time.

All 7.6 billion of us might as well have been living in the same time zone on that beautiful fall morning. Whenever the subject comes up, there is always some mention of how perfect the morning was, how cloudless the blue sky. The air carried the notion that arises on those crisp mornings, of limitless possibility to get it right, to do good, to be happy. We hadn’t yet seen the dark side of that day, the choking, smoky opacity of a corner of hell that once seen could not be unseen. We were about to get a glimpse.

* * *

Martha and Thomas Wright ran a two-bay garage and gas station on the edge of town. No matter how busy they were, which was considerably, they were thorough and accommodating to their customers, many of which were of the not-wanting-to-pump-their-own-gas inclination. Although a few years apart in age, Martha and I had known each other since we were kids. We’d become reacquainted after I moved back to town following a 10-year sojourn. I enjoyed stopping there, appreciated the small-town nature of it all, and liked hearing the local news from Martha, who worked the front of the station pumping gas, collecting money, and retrieving or returning cars Thomas and his sole employee, Mike, had worked on.

The station had a cash register that was almost a hundred years old, having been bought and sold with the building as varying businesses were housed there. They’d had many offers from folks to buy the register but had resisted, preferring it to live where it always had instead of being a novelty in some kitschy restaurant somewhere.

On that morning, I’d stopped for gas on my way to work, and Martha and I chatted for a few moments. Before I reached the stoplight a half-block away, there was a bulletin on the radio. I called my mom to alert her to the breaking news and continued my commute to work. In that 15-minute drive, every second seemed to elongate, filling and spilling over the hour of clock time I lost in the mornings.

Once at the office, I didn’t stay past the time the plane flew into the Pentagon. Back at home, family members living nearby gathered together, watching, weeping, and maintaining a phone vigil to friends and family across the country. In the days that followed, I was repeatedly drawn outdoors to stare toward the northeast, trying to see and smell the air a thousand miles away.

* * *

A month or so later I stopped by the Wrights’, surprised not to find Martha at her usual spot. While pumping my gas, Thomas explained that she’d started volunteering two mornings a week at the elementary school. Knowing their commitment to keeping the station running smoothly required each at their posts on days even when most folks would have called in sick, I was surprised Martha was taking time to volunteer at the school. A few weeks later, upon questioning, she explained to me how she’d stumbled into a place she could find only one way out of.

After an oil change was completed on the car of a second-grade teacher, Martha had returned the car to the school. Back then there were no metal detectors at schoolhouse doors and few security measures in place. The protocol was for visitors to register at the front desk upon entering the school. Because the primary concern was to avoid any issues involving a student leaving the grounds with a noncustodial parent, it had sufficed for years for Martha, who routinely picked up and returned cars to the school staff, to go by the office, jingle the keys at Miss Fanola, the receptionist, and announce whose classroom she was going to and be waved on through.

That morning, Martha returned the car keys to Miss Suzann, who met her at the door of a second-floor classroom and accepted the keys without missing a beat in her lesson on caterpillars. As Martha turned to leave, she considered taking the elevator to save her achy knees from the steep stairs. It was an old school, though, and the retro installation of an elevator was nowhere near Miss Suzann’s room, whereas the stairs nearest Martha would spit her out near the office and front door. Before she could decide, the door to the library opened and 23 kindergartners spilled out of it, single file, and began making their way down the stairs led by their teacher. Martha stood back to let them pass her and noticed at the rear of the line a small boy hesitating at the top of the stairs. The boy in front of him looked back and held out his hand. The last child had just taken his hand when the teacher said, “Josh, let go of Carson’s hand. He needs to do this on his own.”

Josh dropped Carson’s hand and started down the steps. Looking at Carson, Martha saw trembling legs and eyes wide with fear. He hesitated and then sat down to descend the steps the way he had first learned — on his bottom, all the while looking in terror at the steep stairs stretching endlessly, before coming to a landing and then another equally long flight to the first floor. Peering over the railing, Martha saw nothing but empty space and realized the depth of the child’s fear. The teacher admonished him again to stand up and come down the steps. Martha stepped forward, reached for his hand, and in a low voice said, “Here we go, buddy, hold on to me.” The teacher looked up from her spot on the landing, glared at Martha, and barked, “Carson! You are big enough to do this on your own. Now let go of the lady’s hand and put your other hand on the rail and come on down.”

The fury rising up Martha’s throat stunned her into silence. She watched as Carson, trembling, scooted his sneakered foot toward the edge of the step and ever so slowly sought purchase on the step below him, withdrawing several times as the solid surface seemed to always be just beyond reach. Laboriously, he inched his way down under the scrutiny of his teacher and the other children. Breaking Martha’s heart, one tiny hand would reach out to her before remembering that was not allowed. Not wanting to risk Carson’s further humiliation nor raise the wrath of the teacher, she resisted the pull of her own hand to reach for him. After what seemed like an eternity, the 28th and final step was reached and Martha watched as a single tear trickled down the relieved child’s cheek. She whispered to him, “Good job,” as the class made its way around a corner and down the hall.

* * *

When she reached the front door, instead of exiting, Martha turned and without comment stormed right by a shocked Miss Fanola, straight into the principal’s office. It was then, as Mr. Shepherd looked up at her expectantly, that Martha realized she had no idea what she was going to say or do. This mild-mannered, shy, middle-aged woman was shocked to hear her own voice rising in indignation as Mr. Shepherd looked up from the reports spread open in front of him. His years of experience and kind heart trumped any confusion or defensiveness that a lesser person might have felt when suddenly confronted with a person storming into his office, barely able to speak past anger and tears. He had known Martha for years, had his truck regularly serviced at Wright’s, and knew whatever had provoked her needed quick attention, his attention.

Words tumbled out and over themselves as she described the scared and trembling child and the callous actions of the teacher, Miss Marie, who’d been at the school since God was a boy. Mr. Shepherd listened carefully, coming around the desk to help her get seated. He scooted a box of tissues toward her. When she finished speaking and took a breath, she was both embarrassed by her outburst, still angry over what she’d witnessed, and, additionally, confused that she found herself in the principal’s office, an occasion still striking fear in her, even though the last time she’d found herself there was 35 years earlier.

As she waited for his response, Mr. Shepherd stepped to the door and asked Miss Fanola to go to Miss Marie’s room and stay with the class and ask Miss Marie to come to the office. Confrontation was something Martha had consistently avoided, and she blanched a bit at what was about to transpire. Mr. Shepherd, sensing this, used the waiting moments to chat about the weather and the frost forecast for the weekend and how he needed to gather his green tomatoes. He put her at ease so skillfully that by the time Miss Marie arrived Martha was breathing normally.

An illustration of the World Trade Center on 9/11“What’s going on?” Miss Marie demanded.

“Our visitor here, Ms. Martha Wright, was in the upstairs hall when your class left the library to return to their classroom. She saw a student at the back of the line who seemed unnerved by the steps. She saw another student attempt to help him, but you,” he hesitated briefly, “urged him to do it on his own. It appeared the child was upset. Is this accurate?”

“My aide is out sick today. I had 23 5-year-olds in the library and I had to get them back to the first floor, in and out of the bathroom, and ready for their turn in the lunchroom in under 10 minutes. If that is delayed it throws the whole rest of the day off for everybody. I was doing the best I could.”

“Miss Marie, we understand the difficulty of the time issues, but setting that aside for the moment, would you characterize the child as scared?”

She took a deep breath, “I can see how it might have appeared that way, but we’ve been going to the library on the second floor two days a week since school started five weeks ago, and only recently has there seemed to be a problem. I know those stairs are steep, but since he’d done it before with no problems I thought he might just be trying to get attention or….”

“His legs were trembling, and he was trying not to cry,” Martha interrupted. “I’m no teacher, but I know that the child was scared.”

Miss Marie addressed Martha directly, “What do you want me to do? We’re supposed to be preparing them for first grade. He has got to go up and down those steps, and he can do it. He has done it. He’s fine. He doesn’t need to be babied or given special attention. I’m thinking of his own good. If he turns into a crybaby over this, the other kids will tease him, and that really will cause him trouble.”

“I would have helped him down the steps.”

“OK, but you can’t be here every time he has to use those steps! What about Friday, when the class goes back to the library? Or next Tuesday? He has to learn to do this.”

Martha’s mouth opened, and she heard herself saying, “I can be there to help him.”

Mr. Shepherd and Miss Marie both looked at her. “What are you saying?” he asked.

“I’m saying that if he uses those steps twice a week that I can be here twice a week to help him.”

The educators looked at each other and then back at her. Mr. Shepherd said, “That’s a kind offer, but what about when you’re busy at the garage or get tied up and can’t make it? What about then?”

“The garage can manage without me for that hour twice a week. I will be here. It is something I can do, and it is something I will do. What time do the students go to the library?”

Miss Marie answered, “10:45 to 11:30 on Tuesday and Friday mornings, and I get that you think you’re helping, but you know you can’t take care of every need for every child.”

“I know I can’t take care of them all, but I can help this one. I’ll be here at 10:45 on Friday,” Martha said, “unless you tell me not to.”

Again, the educators looked at each other. “Well,” said Mr. Shepherd, “we can’t have a child becoming traumatized by going to the library. If an adult helping him down the steps eases his mind, I think we have nothing to lose. I propose we try it for a few weeks. I’ll check with the parents to make sure they’re agreeable, but if you don’t hear from me, we’ll see you on Friday morning at 10:45. Is that OK by you, Miss Marie?”

“I’m not convinced coddling the boy is the best step to take, but if you’re willing to make the commitment to be here,” she said, looking at Martha then turning to look at Mr. Shepherd, “and since you think it is the best option, well, OK.”

“OK, then,” Martha said as she shook hands with both of them and left.

* * *

Later in the week, stopping by the station to get gas, Mr. Shepherd informed Martha that he’d spoken with Carson’s mom, who was raising three children on her own. She was perplexed by her son’s reaction to the steps. They’d discussed briefly the possibility of visual or perceptual problems that could be explored, but all the pre-school screenings had been normal. Carson’s mother and Mr. Shepherd agreed to take a wait-and-see position.

This event preceded a time when school volunteers were required to undergo background checks, so with no more planning or preparation Martha arrived at the school at the designated time on Friday morning, waved at Miss Fanola, who motioned her through, and headed to the steps. She stood out of the way as the kindergarteners spilled out of their classroom and headed to the stairwell. Miss Marie led the class, and Carson slumped at the back of the line. As the children in front of him started their ascent, she saw him looking up toward the steps. His right hand clutched the hand railing, installed at a height for adults. She heard him take a deep sigh as she stepped beside him and offered him her hand. He looked at her with a sense of relief that faded quickly to dread as he saw Miss Marie watching him from the head of the line, already on the landing. Miss Marie looked at Carson and Martha both for a moment before acknowledging them with the briefest of nods. It was enough. Carson held on to Martha, and together they began the climb up his Everest. Once at the peak, Martha released his hand, and he followed his classmates into the library. Martha waited in the hall, and when the kindergartners came out of the library 45 minutes later, she was there to take Carson’s hand as they made their way back to base camp.

Mr. Shepherd had been watching and was satisfied with the scene that replayed over the next three weeks. On the Tuesday that marked the eighth trip up and down since the day she’d first witnessed Carson’s distress, Martha again waited at her place close by the steps. On this day, however, Carson didn’t look for her, and his hand didn’t reach for hers.

He was whispering and giggling along with the two boys in front of him. Martha stayed back paces and followed them up. Carson never looked back, but when library time was over and descent time came he was looking for her. She held on tightly to him, and when they got to the landing, he released her hand and said, “I think I’ve got this.”

“Yes, buddy, I believe you do,” she answered. Martha followed behind with a ready hand if he needed her, but Carson made it to the first floor without mishap. He turned and waved as he went down the hall to his classroom.

On the next two designated library days, Martha went to the school and followed from farther and farther behind. At the end of the second trip, she went into the office. “I believe I’m finished here,” she said to Mr. Shepherd. He agreed that Carson seemed to be managing the steps just fine.

* * *

An illustration of someone falling down a collapsing collection of steel beamsIt was near the holidays when Mr. Shepherd visited Martha at the garage and, at the request of Carson’s mother, shared what she had put together, piece by piece. In the days following the attack on the World Trade Center, while she thought Carson was asleep, he had been slipping into the family room, where he overheard adults discussing stories punctuated by TV coverage of things no child should have to hear, including multiple reports of people being trapped in stairwells.

The fear of being trapped or falling, the building blocks of most nightmares, had slipped into Carson’s consciousness by way of that ashamed and confused state that stricken children assume has arisen from the fault of their own existence. Thankfully, though, there was no evidence of fear of the stairs now, and Mr. Shepherd and Carson’s mom agreed to continue to be watchful. The mom was grateful to the school for addressing the problem, and Mr. Shepherd explained how it was a visitor who stepped up and, seeing a scared child, offered a solution. Martha revealed to him how intimidating and scary it was to find herself in his office facing Miss Marie. He shared that there were days Miss Marie scared him, too.

While she rarely talked about that event, Martha once shared how mystifying it was that, shy as she was, she had the nerve to stand up to Miss Marie. No one had been more astounded than she. “It took me a long time,” she added, “to realize I was no longer scared of a lot of other things as well.”

* * *

Days and weeks, months and years have passed. Miss Marie stopped taking her car to Wright’s for servicing, much to the relief of Thomas, who’d always found her to be difficult. Our friend Mr. Shepherd died unexpectedly. Carson and his mom moved away when he was in the third grade. I recognized him recently, though, from an internet story gone viral. Carson stood up to a bully who was taunting and shoving a homeless man outside a fast food restaurant. Captured on several camera phones, viewers can see there was no hesitation as a scrawny kid with glasses confronted the older, bigger teenager who was emboldened by his crowd of friends. Carson took no credit, claiming his actions were not out of the ordinary, that anyone would have done the same thing in that moment. Connecting the dots between that event and the time someone stepped up for Carson when he felt small and scared more than a decade earlier made me wonder if bravery begets bravery and why some of us respond to its beckoning while others do not?

Here on the cusp of two time zones, we’re still crisscrossing back and forth, moving in and out of each other’s lives, sharing events both personal and global, mundane and holy. My connection with the Wrights deepened, as will happen with someone who changes the oil in your car every 3,000 miles for decades. Added to that familiarity is how Martha and I annually acknowledge the awful anniversary of those last moments before the world as we knew it changed.

It is then I’m reminded of a gentle woman’s seemingly simple act of courage and character. It is then I glimpse the ripple effect that integrity has beyond our witness, reaching to a place where clocks and alarms, time zones and calendars all bow before the imperative of standing up for a person who cannot.

Susan Howard Montgomery headshotAfter joining Mensa in the ’80s, Susan allowed her membership to lapse through some early impecunious years and rejoined in the ’90s. A graduate of Western Kentucky University and Murray State University, she lives in historic Greensburg, Ky., where following an enormously gratifying career as a vocational rehabilitation counselor, she now spends her days reading and writing from her hilltop home.
Kentuckiana Mensa | Joined 1982