Dec. 23, 2002, 4:45 p.m. I'm getting on the Metro. I feel pretty good. I make my way past a group of kids and sit down next to a woman reading. I'm too tired to take out a book.
The aforementioned group of youths at the door become the primary focus of my attention. There are six or seven of them -- one girl. I'd say they range from 10 to 13 years old. No school today, I think to myself. Two of the boys methodically play games on their cell phones -- all concentration. The language the others are using with one another is pretty coarse and foul. As the train grows more full at each stop, they stay sprawled as if the car were empty. New passengers step over their legs, which are extended into the aisle.
At this point, I feel compelled to note that I'm relatively young enough not to be put off by a generic gangster affect. Further, having taught middle and high school students, I am aware of the range of behaviors one can reasonably expect from kids at different ages. That said, these kids -- the ones talking, at any rate -- are skirting the edges of that range, and I'm not the only one noticing. No one is issuing those warm smiles that adults so readily cast onto children. A middle-aged woman, sitting just behind the group, stands up and puts distance between herself and them. Let me reiterate that not one of these kids appears to be older than 13.
The boy in front of me has an odd posture: almost in a fetal position, slouched far, far down. New passengers walking by eye him curiously. Finally, I lean forward to see what he is doing. He backs up, standing in the aisle now, but hunched over -- and resumes drawing on the seat in pen. I don't remember what it was he was drawing or writing. No rainbows or butterflies, though. As I have obviously seen him, and he has obviously seen me see him, I must call him out -- he's vandalizing a full train during rush hour, after all.
"What are you doing?" I ask in a tone I think is curious but stern.
"I'm drawing, bitch. What does it look like I'm doing?"
I freeze, redden. He looks up now. He is staring at me hard. I hold the stare, but I have no idea how to respond. He must be -- what? -- 11.
"You can't do that," I say finally, and while we are not speaking loudly, everyone near us is taking note.
No one says anything.
"Listen, bitch, if you don't want me to rob your North Face [my jacket] you better shut the [expletive] up."
"I said, if you wanna keep your North Face shut the [expletive] up."
This exchange goes on for one or two more rounds. I say nothing substantial. The 11-year-old continues to threaten me. I realize we are at my stop. The woman beside me, who has obviously witnessed the entire event, stands up and says, "Excuse me," as she would normally to make her way out of our seat and off the train. I pick up my things. I can feel all eyes on me as I leave.
I have no idea what happened when I exited the train and emerged onto the street. Maybe someone said something or did something firm about the child's language or his action and got results. Maybe the kid kept on drawing, a car full of adults paralyzed while a handful of adolescents learned the lesson that fear and violence are power, and that those who evoke it get what they want.
After replaying the incident a number of times in my mind, I'm not sure what I could have done or said to get the desired outcome, i.e., cessation of vandalism.
I know my approach wasn't successful. I am sure, too, that we have a problem. It is clearly a problem that some children have experienced this kind of threatening dialogue enough to replicate it confidently in public.
But it is perhaps a bigger problem that a group of grown-ups allowed uncertainty, perceived differences or maybe just apathy to excuse their responsibilities as adults in this society to mentor our youth.
What should we do? Well, we can reduce economic disparity, work to strengthen social networks and make equitable our systems of education. We might also try to take ownership of that which happens in our society by actively engaging in it, even when it means authentically interacting with strangers from time to time. It might be helpful, too, to openly discuss our mistakes and failings. So, as for the Metro ride, what would you have done?
The writer lives and works in Washington.