Rigid Time versus Flowing Time

I often complain about my children’s apparent disregard for time. For them, time seems to be irrelevant in their daily lives. Have an appointment? It’s OK to be late. Need to be at work at 8:00 AM? 8:05 is OK. Granddaughter’s bedtime? What’s that? For me as a member of the Me-Generation who was nurtured by parents of the Great Depression and the Second World War, being on-time was late. Lateness was a sin. Lateness was theft. If you were late, you were late to somebody else who was waiting for you. You were stealing their money. Time is money.  It could be my parents’ obsession with time had to do with their shorter life expectancy or maybe their acute awareness of it was due to Henry Ford’s assembly line and the inculcation of capitalism? Their only escape from the oppression of time was baseball. Technically, a game could go on forever. Mercifully, cities passed ordinances setting time limits for play. Whatever the reason, time was a tyrant. God may have died but time was alive and well.

It’s hard to be late to yourself. Unless you are out of compliance and miss your meds. Being late meant you might miss something; be left out of the loop. You would ask only your very best friend to punch your timecard for you. It was almost as great a taboo as telling someone who you voted for. Being late meant that it might be recorded and eventually archived on your infamous record that you would carry with you like a brand from job to job. My parents would warn me, “They’ll put it on your record.” It was one of those things they would always remind me of, like making sure I was wearing clean underwear in case I was in an accident. I’m still waiting to find out who the “they” are and where they keep that record. In the Cloud. It’s been there all the time.

Being written up, having it put in your folder, and on your record are all traces of the same intimidation tactics employers use to annoy you and get in your head. You can thank the Millennials for liberating everyone from this ball and chain. If you are still afraid of this type of intimidation tactic, you are a real coward. Unions may have lost much of their power but there is nothing more powerful than supply and demand. Workers are in demand right now. My advice to workers…make employers grovel. Make them wait for you at that eight o’clock meeting. They have had their boots on our necks since Reagan.  Now it’s time for a comeuppance.

An Anecdote on Time

The only time in my life that I was ever “written up” for being late came late in my teaching career in 2004-2005. I had been reprimanded many times, and was proud of it, but never for lateness. Reprimands for me were my red badge of courage. However, I’d calmed down as I matured. I’d become more tolerant of stupidity. I thought I’d traversed the mine field of time. I couldn’t even remember the last time I got a traffic ticket. “Sir, you were clocked at…” See. Even speeding tickets are based on time. 

I was forty-nine years old and seven years from an early, and much deserved retirement. I was teaching at one of the county’s madhouses called a Middle School. The principal and his assistant principals held the keys to the asylum but the inmates ran the show. At the present time the principal is a superintendent in a Delaware County school district; and his assistant principal is the Director of Human Resources in a Chester County school district. Their longevity and their ascension in the ranks is indicative of their ease at coalescing with madness.

One morning in late winter, I arrived at the middle school at 7:28 AM. By contract, teachers had to be there at 7:30 AM. It was a cold morning. I had taken my time driving from Coatesville because of black ice but I always left early in case of emergencies so that I wouldn’t be, you got it, late. My son rode with me to work. We lived in Coatesville but he attended school in in the district where I worked because of professional courtesy. He was a 7th grade student.

When we arrived, I told him to take my briefcase into the cafeteria. That’s where we assembled the kids before they went to homeroom in the morning. I didn’t go into the building because I saw Mrs. C who was pregnant unloading boxes of IEPs from the trunk of her car. There were icy spots in the parking lot. I was afraid she might slip. I walked to her car and offered to help. I carried a box of IEPs [spell-out the abbreviation] into the building for her.

As we came through the door I saw an assistant principal and another man sitting on the bench in the foyer. The other man was an elementary school principal who the principal had arranged to sit with his assistant as a witness to people arriving late. The assistant had a clipboard. As Mrs. C and I passed him, I saw him write something down. I looked at the clock. It was 7:32 AM. We were two minutes late. I knew I was in for a growth experience. At 2:55 PM, like two miscreant children, Mrs. C and I were called to the principal’s office.

I was directed by the secretary to Mrs. A’s office, another assistant principal, while Mrs. C went into another office. SB, an art teacher and a union building representative, was also there seated in front of Mrs. A’s desk. Mrs. A was behind her desk. A was succinct. She said that I had been seen coming into the building this morning late and that if I were late again, it would be grounds for dismissal. She pushed a paper in front of me. I asked SB if I had to sign the paper. He said signing the paper was not an acknowledgment that I agreed only an acknowledgment that I had received a warning. I was told by SB that I had to sign the paper to acknowledge that I had been warned. I asked what would happen if I didn’t sign the paper. He said that would be grounds for dismissal as it could be construed as insubordination. I felt like I was in high school again, taking a sports physical, and being asked by the doctor to lower the front of my underwear and cough. I signed.

The Inmates are Running the Asylum

I was told by an insider that the reason I was written up was because the principal was using me as an example.  Mrs. C was just collateral damage. I was being instrumentalized. The principal was having difficulty with his younger, 6th grade staff, who were mostly young women. They were parking in the rear of the building and sneaking in late with their Wawa fresh brewed coffee in hand; so late that they were having friends cover their classes until they arrived. It was as if somebody was punching their timecard for them. It was rumored that a school board member had seen them one morning and reported it to MDB, the principal’s boss, who lambasted him. I believe this was all hearsay. The teachers in the district where I worked were terrified of school board members because they were entrenched politically. The school board was a steppingstone for those seeking higher political positions. Some were even Right-Wing plants to undermine public education.

The principal didn’t want to upset his young 6th grade staff. He had already had an issue with them. He awarded the senior staff members with twenty plus years’ experience, medals for their years of service. This upset the “girls” in the 6th grade wing who felt that seniority, that is, the number of years you taught, had nothing to do with how well you taught. The “girls” felt that the principal had committed age discrimination but I think they felt slighted that he hadn’t paid them due attention. The day after he awarded the medals, he had an emergency staff meeting to announce that the awarding of medals had nothing to do with competency and apologized for any misunderstanding.

The principal figured that if he could make an example of me, an older teacher and someone who had close ties to the central office administration, he would be sending a message to the younger staff. I had worked at Central Office as the English as a Second Language (ESL) Coordinator from 1988-2000. Over those years I had covered so many asses that I had accumulated probably more political favors than I had accumulated sick days. When I retired, I had 232 sick days. They were worth a small fortune. In our contract, teachers were paid $80 per accumulated sick days.

The principal had a chip on his shoulder against the Central Office. He didn’t like being told what to do. On one occasion, MDB had laid him out because the 8th grade team of teachers had put an inordinate number of students on the ineligibility list. Parents had called the Central Office to complain bypassing the principal. As I recall, half of the 8th grade was ineligible.  Kids who were ineligible were failing two or more subjects. This meant that the ineligible kids could not participate in sports or other extracurricular activities like music programs. It was rumored that the Music Department who had their own separate wing in the asylum, had called MDB because many of the ineligible kids were in the Spring Concert and were not allowed to practice.  

The principal called an emergency 8th grade team meeting and told the 8th grade teachers to reduce the ineligibility list by half by the end of the day and by another half by the next day. When the principal was asked by the 8th grade teachers how to do this he said that homework should not count against a student’s grade. Any kid who was failing because of not doing their homework was to be removed from the ineligibility list. This meant that there would be no consequences for kids who didn’t do homework. When the kids and parents got wind of this, there was a free for all. It caused havoc the rest of the year in the 8th grade. The principal’s mandate empowered kids and undermined the teachers for the rest of the year. For the most part, it made parents happy because now they were unburdened of the onus to coerce their children to do homework. Instead, parents could be more at ease facilitating their child’s participation in soccer practice and dance classes. These were the activities that really mattered for the growth of middle schoolers.

If I recall, this homework mandate occurred at the end of the third marking period. Thankfully, there was only one marking period left. Once a middle schooler smells blood, the feeding frenzy begins.  This was the ultimate victory for kids who were just beginning to test their limits. Many teachers objected which at the end of the school year resulted in involuntary transfers and grievances all of which the teachers lost because the building principal has the ultimate say in managing his/her building within school district guidelines and policy.

The principal knew I was friends with MDB, who was the assistant superintendent in charge of secondary education. The principal resented that one of his staff members was on friendly terms with his boss. Someone had taped a picture of MDB next to the teachers’ mailboxes. Under the picture was written, Richard Beck’s Friend. the principal had to have known about this.

I met with the principal immediately after I signed the paper in A’s office. The principal told me not to take it personally. I told him that I took it as personally as I took sin personally and tried to connect with him by explaining how my generation was schooled on the construct of lateness.  I said, “You don’t write a person up for being two minutes late who hasn’t missed a day’s work in fifteen years.” I told him how I took pride in not taking a sick day or personal day. His response, “Why not? You’re entitled to them.” He didn’t get it. I told him that I had many letters in my file that had been written by principals meant as reprimands all of which I was proud because on my part they all were based upon my defense of my students who were mostly minority. I told him one of the best comeback lines ever. I said, “Your letter does not make me proud but it should make you ashamed.”  I called Dr. JH the Human Resources Director right after I met with the principal.

I asked JH for a transfer to the high school. The deadline for transfer requests had already passed by two weeks. I started to explain to him what had happened. He cut me off. “Beck, you want a transfer, right? You don’t need to explain to me why,” he said. JH already knew why. I suspected by JH’s tone that the principal was not a favorite at central office. 

The next day I was called to the office at 2:55 PM again. I hoped that the principal was going to rescind the reprimand. Not so. Standing at the office counter was Dr. JH. JH had hired me back in 1988 as the ESL Coordinator. To say that he had much confidence and trust in me is an understatement. JH and I worked very hard over a decade to win the support of the community and the administration for the ESL Program, a much-needed program that helped minority kids learn English and assist teachers in adapting their classroom content to accommodate students who had limited English proficiency.

“Let’s find a place to talk,” JH said.

I followed JH back into the office. We came to the principal’s office door.

“We need to use your office,” JH said to the principal. JH was busting his balls. The principal sprang up like a scared rabbit. Well, that’s karma I thought. JH told me that he couldn’t get me into H for next year, but he could get me into E. The following year I began teaching at E High School.


For me, arriving fifteen minutes before the appointment, class, or work was on-time. That fifteen minutes was like preparation for a race. It gave you time to stretch your legs, relax, assess the competition, and take a deep breath before the gun sounded and off you went until the whistle blew at five. Even more important, it sent a message to the boss, you hoped it did, that you were ready and willing. The earlier you arrived, the bigger ass-kisser you were unless you got to work too early and then everybody thought you were weird.  Ready and willing, yes, whether you were able was irrelevant. As they said, 90% of success is showing up. Not so much anymore. Today you don’t have to show up at all. You can work from home. One of the best ways to ass-kiss has almost disappeared unless you show up early for a Skype meeting but then you have to wait for someone to let you in.

COVID-19 may be a blessing in disguise. Tragedy and hardship tend to make life more lucid. Perhaps, that’s why after the viewing at a funeral I always felt lighter leaving the funeral home. It was as if I missed the bullet.

Yesterday, my son stopped by during his lunch break. He’s a chemist. He works about a quarter mile from our apartment. He could walk to our apartment for lunch if he wanted. My wife always has lunch ready for him so that he isn’t…late. He has a half-hour for lunch. For me, a half-hour was just that…thirty minutes. But that’s from a rigid time worldview not a flowing time worldview. Rigid time is fixed like the pillars beneath a bridge that impedes the water momentarily before letting it pass; flowing time is the water that misses the pillars completely making no ripples or waves in the water. Rigid time is man-made; flowing time is not.

My son sat and played my guitar as a I napped in my recliner. At the designated rigid time of concern, my wife asked him if he was OK meaning to remind him of his obligation to the Gods of rigid time. He said yes and continued to play. After about ten more minutes he announces, “OK, Mom. Time for me to go.” We figured it would take him at least ten minutes to get in his truck, drive to his work site, and sit at his desk. At this point, at least twenty minutes late.

I attribute my children’s lackadaisical construct of time to two causes. First, technology. What our kids are very good at and what we take for granted and underestimate, is their comfort with the instantaneous, what we perceive as chaos. Chaos reveals the stupidity on which our social contracts are built. Chaos strips away what we think makes things work. When those constructs, like rigid time, that comprise the social contract are stripped away, we find that our lives run just as well without them. COVID-19  provided us with chaos but we adapted like all good human beings have done. That’s what we are good at. In the beginning we felt uncomfortable like strangers in a strange world. Not our children. For them it started with their need for immediacy another issue for another day. Our kids don’t need adjustment times. They flow right into the next task without a hiccup. That has to be due to the rapidity of technology. Or is it something else?

I think it is also due to their resistance to power; a resistance that spells the demise of inane practices like rushing to get to work by eight o’clock when you have a cranky toddler you have to dress, feed, and prep for daycare. In some places that toddler, the most important thing in that worker’s life, is no excuse for being one minute late. That’s an inane management practice plus it’s dehumanizing. A manager who punishes a person for caring for their child isn’t going to be managing anything for long. That’s a good thing.

My wife and I rationalized that companies are so desperate for workers that nowadays they must overlook lateness. We blamed it on COVID-19. Maybe. But I think something more here is at play. COVID-19  only made our work culture more aware of the differences between rigid time and flowing time; two constructs that have been lacking human attention for centuries. The construct of rigid time is a habit we’ve accepted without question for to do so might label us as lazy or irresponsible. I thought this must go back to the Industrial Revolution or it might be attributable to Weber’s Protestant work ethic. Could be, after all, wasn’t it Spengler who wrote in The Decline of the West, that specialization and regimentation would lead to the fall of Western Civilization? Could it be that the predictions in a book published in 1922 are finally coming to fruition 100 years later? Could it be that we are returning to the Agrarian Age construct of time when we were governed by the weather or are we beginning to accept that the best clocks are our biological clocks? School Districts are beginning to change their schedules based upon the biological needs of certain age groups and their sleep needs. Why not think about this in the context of work?

The point of rigid time is not to increase work or improve a worker’s production. The purpose of rigid time is punishment. It is a sadistic weapon. It strikes fear. Rigid time is a means to control people; a tool for a powerful person to exert their power over another.  Are there times when rigid time is acceptable? Sure, there is. We need rigid time in life-or-death situations but not all situations are life or death.  For the times we need rigid time, the punishment is already inherent in the situation. Not one person loses; everybody loses if time constraints are not met. In these cases, we follow rigid time because the consequences are punishing in and of themselves. We don’t need a powerful person managing the clock to invent a punishment for us; to call us into the Human Resources Department and make us feel ashamed because we prioritized our child over being on time. In situations where rigid time is demanded, punishment is embedded in the situation and inherent to it and failure to meet time constraints diminishes all parties to the event. Time constraints must be shared constraints.

We think this rigid time construct began with the Industrial Revolution. I believe the construct of rigid time existed long before 1848. It existed in the militaries worldwide and was borrowed by industrialists. It fit well into the industrialist’s control of labor who needed a way to regiment their workers. But the farther we are removed from the Industrial Age and even the Technological Age, the less rigid time makes any sense. We have moved from the Technological Age to the Communication Age. How important is being on time when what is most important is getting the right answer which might require, “I’ll get back to you later.”

I think this is the most important reason for the rejection of rigid time.  People are finally rejecting the militaristic construct of rigid time imposed on our culture like another militaristic construct once was, the construct of chain-of-command, as opposed to the more pedestrian construct of "flowing time." This has to do with 21st century postmodern resistance to tradition, systemic oppression, and the awareness that the best method of fighting a system that is impermeable to change is to resist it. “OK I’m late. Here’s my reason. Don’t like it. Too bad. I’ll find another job where the boss isn’t an asshole.” Eventually the asshole will adjust to the new cultural contract of employment if not he/she will not be successful. For successful people, power and coercion are not their preferred tools of leadership. Cooperation and persuasion are. I believe business and other institutions are beginning to realize with much thanks to COVID-19 that the construct of rigid time is not necessary for success.

To give my children’s generation credit, they’re so-called Millennials, they have as a whole, stood up against the tyranny of business that demanded the ridiculous rule that all of you must show up at the same time with the herd like lemmings except for the bosses, those in power, mostly White men. They can show up late. They can make you wait.  Being on-time has been a repressive tool of business and generally of those in power. It has so dominated Western Culture that it has been used as a rationale to fire people. One lateness is excused with a verbal warning; the second with a written warning, the third is grounds for firing. Three strikes and you’re out. I wonder from where the justice system got the Three Strikes Policy. How many bosses have used this weapon as an excuse just to get rid of a Black person or a woman they didn’t like or to get rid of a Black or Woman they feared might get in front of them on the way to the top? This rigid time construct is important in the architecture of the Glass Ceiling. It helps hold it up.