I was on the A train to Manhattan from Bed Stuy. At Hoyt-Schermerhorn, someone got on and started playing his ring tone over and over, at maximum volume. (It will never make sense to me why kids enjoy listening to the tinny, gravelly tones of music through the tiny speakers on cell phones or handheld thingies. Walking around with a boombox I can understand. But this is like carrying around an old grammophone with a rusty needle.) I could see him from over my copy of the New Yorker: skinny, spry, defiant.
I watched him approach a woman in one of the seats facing the aisle. He gestured and panted and performed a strange, offensive theatrical routine–I tried not to watch, but whatever it was, it was nasty–until she got up and vacated the seat. He reminded me of the boys in the film “Kids.” As soon as he sat down, his friend, a gangly tomboy, sat down next to him and punched him in the arm, like, Why you gotta be like that? I liked her instantly. I wondered why they were friends.
He was small, but he took up so much space: his language, his stacatto cadences, his limbs, the way he seemed to be careening in every direction. Everything announced him. He cursed and declared and argued and kept playing the ring tone. His friend, the tomboy, finally wrestled it from him and started playing her own ring tone. I bored my eyes into the New Yorker, praying they wouldn’t notice me, even though I was facing them. I saw him engage one stranger, to disasterous results, and I reeled with the possibility that I might be next.
What would I say? Would I get up wordlessly, like the lady before me? No. I was fascinated by them. Mostly by her, but I could tell they were both sort of brilliant. They reminded me of the metalheads I hung out with in junior high: genius assholes, lazy and hellbent at once. I imagined winning them over, not buying his schtick, disarming him by paying close attention.
I thought, somebody is that kid’s teacher. And I am lucky enough not to have anyone, really, who behaves like that in my class, and a school that basically doesn’t admit anyone who does. Other schools, “zone schools” in New York parlance, have to take kids from the neighborhood. Thousands of students applied to our school, and we only took 50. I almost shook my head in disbelief. All my complaints about pedagogy, intention, collaboration, a collegial community I can be proud of; at some schools, teaching is fought like a war.
Who was this kid? Who was his friend? I was appalled by how little consideration he showed for everyone around him. I wondered how he got that way. I could see the delicate line his friend walked, exasperated, disgusted, but maybe devoted to him anyway.
They never noticed me. I got off before the train sped up to midtown. I walked past the projects on my street, impossibly tall and efficient; past the luxury condo, all windows and aluminum; I walked into my nondescript brick building. I pushed through the door and saw a porter, the one with the beautiful smile, Windexing the inside door. He grinned and pulled the door open for me. The lobby smelled faintly of floor-cleaner.
I stepped out of the elevator onto the seventh floor, carpeted and hushed. I remembered the dark, odorous hallway with creaky linoleum stairs in my old building in Brooklyn; the front door didn’t lock, and two guys would sort of let you through, the entryway billowing with pot smoke. I thought of the photographs of the Ida B. Wells projects in Our America, an autobiography of two teenagers who grew up there, that I’m using in class next week, and how it didn’t look like a place where people lived, but a place where you went to die, until you saw pictures of children hanging out in shopping carts, laughing, being children.
I don’t know where the boy and the girl from the train were from. I can’t make any claims about them; I don’t want to make them into archetypes; I don’t know them. I don’t know what their homes are like.
Boys like him are pretty familiar, though, and I could imagine the kind of parenting, or lack thereof, that turned him into such a terror. I could imagine the bullies who made him want to be so tough, the choices he had to make between taking or being taken, getting or being got, acting or being acted on – the choice between being the subject or the object. The noun or the verb. With her, the struggle was obvious. You could see her wrestle with the choice: citizen or menace? He had already decided.
I couldn’t get them out of my head.