riding on the metro: a choose your own adventure story
Reader Kathy sent me a link to an interesting article in the January 3 edition of the New York Times.
What Would You Have Done? by Shannon Fitzsimmons is about bullying and, in essence, how adults are no better at dealing with child bullies than children are.
The story Shannon Fitzsimmons tells is this:
She was on the Metro in December and in her car were six or seven children, all between the ages of ten an thirteen. It's daytime. The kids are sprawled out, oblivious to the fact that there are other people in the car who would like to sit down. The kids are using foul and coarse language.
There is one particular boy that Ms. Fitzsimmons focuses on:
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.
And call him out she does, rather benignly, I think.
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.
Where did she go wrong in her confrontation with the boy? And was it really her responsibility to confront him at all? Perhaps he went on the defensive because she went on the offensive. Perhaps he really would have stolen her jacket.
...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.
I don't feel it is my responsibility to mentor the youth of our society. I can set an example for them by the way I behave, by the way my own children behave, but I don't believe any adult is automatically granted with this job of mentoring the entire youth of one's community, city or even country.
When a child acts the way that boy on the train did at home, it should be taken care of there. And if it's not, then he will take that attitude and use it in school, where it should be dealt with. And if it's not - well, I have enough problems getting my own kids to accept responsibility for their behavior, I really can't set aside time to lecture someone else's kid, mainly because that kid is really not going to care what I have to say.
She then goes on:
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?
How did an act of bullying, bravado and obnoxiousness become entangled with economic disparity? Think back to your school days. Who were the arrogant ones, the bullies, the guys who threw underfreshman in lockers and held girls down under the bleachers? For me, it was the All-American, clean shaven rich kids.
Wy must everything be about this guilt we should have when faced with people who aren't "as good" as us. If a child isn't well behaved, then we should look to see how much his parents are making? If a child threatens to steal your shit should we automatically assume he's suffering in poverty at home? No. You should assume he is taking control over you, using the power of his words and his perceived threats to make you quake in your boots.
Fitzsimmons is another in a long line of people looking for root causes in every single situation like this. They hold criminals and vandals up to the light and try to look through them with a social microscope. Never to they actually blame the person commiting the crime. Instead of trying to figure out if this kid came from a poor home, or trying to mentor him or interact with him and all of those other feel-good phrases, she should have moved from the car, alerted a conductor and let him deal with the vandal.
At least one person who answered the "what would you have done" question got it right:
First, I would stop blaming myself, the young thug's parents, the other passengers, the economy and weak "social networks" and begin blaming the perpetrator. Maybe then I would find the means to "authentically interact" with this criminal, perhaps by alerting Metro authorities and having this vulgar, violent thug hauled off to face a judge who could adjudicate the young offender's "mistakes and failings," as Ms. Fitzsimmons puts it.
While this approach might not qualify under Ms. Fitzsimmons's definition of "mentor[ing] our youth," it just might make Metro a safer place for her and her fellow passengers.
To borrow a quote from a fellow blogger: Indeed