One of my worst memories of third grade was when Sr. Mary Frances asked me to go check what time it was for her. A small clock was on the counter near the sink, so I went over to look, but I couldn’t read what the hands were telling me. I didn’t yet know how to tell time. Sister sent over my friend Leslie to help me, and Leslie knew right away what time it was. She told me, I told the teacher, we went back to sit on the rug, and class went on.
Not a big moment of shame, you might think. But it was for me. There are odd things about this memory, but I don’t question them because the feeling remains real. I was ashamed that I couldn’t tell time. It didn’t help me that my teachers kept teaching me the hour and the half hour because in real life, the clock hands were almost never (only twice an hour) on those precise positions. It didn’t help when they said to ignore the second hand, like it didn’t matter. That speedy red hand was the most exciting thing up there.
By fourth grade, I still couldn’t read clocks. It wasn’t until my dad took off his watch for me to hold and taught me the whole system, minute by minute, from the second hand and all the way up, that I finally understood the pattern. He let me ask questions, like what time would it be if the hands were here, like this? And he showed me that the hour hand couldn’t be quite in that place if the minute hand was there, because of the relationship between the hands. So I learned the system by which we count time, and I felt safe. I’d never again have to be embarrassed by not knowing how to tell time.
People ask me how much of Gaia from Birthmarked is in me. Who hasn’t felt ignorant? Who hasn’t been an outsider? If I can still feel my father’s heavy, warm watch in my little fingers, I can know how deeply Gaia felt her father’s love. Some things are universal. Or timeless.