The first step of learning the NYC transit system is simply to survive. The overwhelming network of trains at first seems impossible to navigate, especially once you add in all the crazy shenanigans the weekend trains try to pull. Once you've mastered the first step and begin to have an idea of how to get from place to place, you can move on to the second step: learning the character of the trains. As the routes become more familiar, you start to get a feel for what kind of people ride each train, what to expect at certain hours and on certain lines, and what that means for your comfort and survival. I have recently moved on to step three, which involves remembering on which side the doors open at each stop, what end of the train is closest to the exit you need, and, most importantly, being aware of what's happening inside the cars as they pull up so you can make an informed decision about which car to get into.
So I was a bit disappointed with myself yesterday when I got on the train at 11pm and realized immediately that I'd gotten onto a loud one. A family of several kids (one in a stroller) were yelling and crying and laughing, and as I sat down and looked at the faces around me, I realized they'd probably been doing so for a while. Though my initial feeling had been disappointment at getting on a noisy car late at night when I would have preferred quiet, the longer I sat on the train the more upset I got. Not with the family, who seemed blissfully unaware of the reaction of the other passengers (though I'm sure the parents weren't), but with the passengers who were huffing and puffing in their New York fashions and shooting the family dirty looks.
I recognize that my perspective on the situation is influenced both by my involvement with children as a teacher and nanny, and by my profession as a theater maker. Many of the people sitting on the train probably spend very limited time with children, and that makes loud, active play somewhat jarring. But the way the passengers were reacting just seemed so extreme. The girl sitting next to me kept looking up from her book and staring at the parents, as if by giving them a mean enough look she could silence their children. The couple across from me did nothing the entire ride but give each other knowing looks and whisper pointedly. And the older man sitting next to the couple intermittently yelled at the kids in Spanish.
Kids have to learn that there is a time to be quiet, and parents need to be sensitive to the people who come in contact with their families. But these kids weren't out of control. They were just being kids, and the passengers around me were acting like this was the worst display of brat behavior they'd ever seen. Like this was a personal affront to them, ruining their evenings beyond repair, when really it was just a short train ride. (And honestly, I have little sympathy when the solution to their problem is as simple as changing cars at the next stop.)
As a nanny and a teacher I spend plenty of time thinking about discipline and creating boundaries for kids, and I certainly have my moments of shortness. Yet I realized as I sat on the train that there is a fundamental difference in how I interact with kids and how those people sitting, glaring on the train do. Kids don't have a filter because, as my good friend Felicia Bertch once said, "Their arrows are pointing out." As adults our arrows are always, always pointing in, wondering how our words or actions are affecting others and what people think of us. Kids only care about the world around them, and the input they're receiving. It's kind of beautiful. Sitting on the train, I wanted to ask the passengers around me, "Don't you remember what it was like to be a kid? Don't you remember that enthusiasm and wonder? Don't you wish you still had some of it? Isn't that more important than your desire for silence right now?"
This summer I participated in voice workshops by another amazing friend and artist, Jenn Cribbs. We worked to unlock our voices from the tiny cage we lock them into on a daily basis, which in turn shuts our bodies down and turns our awareness firmly inward. During one of our workshops Jenn's daughter's voice interrupted us, echoing through the room from far across a nearby field. "Do you hear that?" Jenn asked. "She speaks like that because no one has taken it away from her yet. And if anyone ever does..." She made a fist.
We all laughed that day, but I thought about Jenn's words on the train yesterday. The parents on the train were not trying to quiet their children or contain their play. We can and should talk about all the times parents need to teach their kids respect and discipline and sensitivity, but I think we also need to talk about our society's problem with both judging parents for the childlike actions of their children, and imposing our own desire for silence and order on kids who simply have their arrows pointing out. We could all stand to reverse our arrows a little bit.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
Eugene H. Peterson
The Devil in the White City
Peter A. Pitzele