Instead, they said, “If you could do anything in this world, what would it be?”
At the time, I was a journalist in my 20s covering crime, and one of the most depressing parts of my job came when I stood in under-resourced neighborhoods, in front of parents who hadn’t yet buried their children, and they didn’t have one publishable photo of that young person to hand me.
Of course, at that stoplight, I didn’t have time to say any of that. Feeling the pressure of a red light about to turn green, I didn’t have the luxury of mulling, overanalyzing or second-guessing.
I blurted out, “Help more kids get out of poverty.”
“Cool,” they said. Then the light changed, and they drove off.
I don’t know if those teenagers were working on some class assignment or if they were unusually introspective, but that interaction remains one of the weirdest and most powerful ones I’ve had with strangers (and I’ve had some extremely weird and powerful ones). I am by nature a muller, an over-analyzer and a second-guesser. I am that person who can look at two black sweaters and before buying one, exhaust myself with calculations of price vs. practicality vs. durability vs. the question of do I even need another black sweater.
If I had been given time to think about that question, I would have probably answered differently. But the situation forced me to push aside the clutter in my mind and pick a priority. It was a Marie Kondo for the soul moment long before I had heard of Marie Kondo.
As we enter 2020, in a way we are all sitting in that car, trying to figure out what matters most. It is human nature to set goals and priorities, and the pull to do so feels particularly powerful this year. Maybe that’s because last year was so draining and divisive. Or maybe that’s because we are entering a new decade and that always feels full of promise and possibilities.
For some of us, the new year might see us making a phone call we have been avoiding. For others, it might push us to give up alcohol, join a gym or start searching for a new career.
When I think about my list of hopes and plans for 2020, they can be broken down into two categories: the thought-out version and the stoplight one.
When I spend time shaping my resolutions, I see the blue ThredUP bags in my closet that I have been meaning to fill with neglected dresses, pants and shirts. A few years ago, I decided to limit most of my clothes shopping for my kids and myself to secondhand items, and I have no regrets. It’s been financially and environmentally a win. In December, when the 5-year-old complained that his size-4T jacket was too tight, I quickly found him a size-6 J. Crew jacket for $20.
But I have been less successful at clearing out the items we no longer need. One of my personal vows is that by 2021, those clothes will be cleared from our closets and drawers and passed onto people who will use them.
The most optimistic version of me also has plans this year to use less plastic, call my parents more and make my health as much of a priority as I do the health of my kids.
All of those things are important to me. They are also not what I would offer as my main priority if we only had those moments between the blink of a red light and a green one to talk.
That one, surprisingly, remains the same as the one I blurted out years ago.
In this column, I try to cover a wide range of topics that take you to places and introduce you to people you might not encounter otherwise. I feel grateful to have this platform, and I plan to use it more this year to explore ways we can help propel children who have the fewest resources toward success. I hope, with your help, to highlight solutions that are working, expose the ways children are still being failed and raise questions that for too long have gone unanswered, because politics isn’t the only divide that should concern us in Washington. We know based on what the past few years alone have shown us that the prospects for many children in the region are not improving and in some ways are getting worse, despite good intentions and financial investments.
We know, based on an article that ran in The Washington Post this week, that efforts by Maryland’s largest school system in recent years to close the achievement gaps between black and Latino children and their white and Asian counterparts have failed to make much of a difference. Latino students in Montgomery County’s schools, according to that article, are 11 times as likely as their Asian peers to drop out of high school.
We know, based on other reports, that in 2019, a dozen school-age children and teenagers were shot or stabbed to death during a record year of homicides in the District. One of those was Maurice Scott, a 15-year-old whose face was memorialized on a mural that covers one side of a corner store where he was shot in the head by a bullet that wasn’t meant for him. That mural marks the spot where D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) offered a $25,000 reward for information about who killed him and where his twin sister stood, without him, on her first day of 10th grade.
We also know that sometimes solutions come from people just asking the right questions.
On Thursday, the District is supposed to start shuttling homeless families who live at two hotels on New York Avenue NE to the two closest Metro stations so that those children can get to and from school safely and in a timely manner. That came about because an organization asked those families about their needs, advocated for them and reached out to city officials, who listened and responded.
In 2020, I hope that those children take advantage of that shuttle and that more of them make it to school on time.
I hope fewer children become faces on murals they won’t see.
And I hope more teenagers force adults around them to stop and think about what’s really important, if only for that short time it takes for a light to turn green.
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