I spend a lot of time with other people's children.
I've spilled much metaphorical ink about the excruciating sweetness of being a teacher - specifically, a middle and high school teacher. It's a largely thankless job, grueling and often heartbreaking, if you make the mistake of caring too much. Strangers at parties will thank me, sometimes, for what I do, but it's usually followed up by a self-disparaging comment like "lord knows I don't have the patience for that" which leaves me feeling less thanked and more...gawked at. I can't fault them for this, though. No one knows what I do better than I, and I don't think many people that I meet could do it. Most days, I'm unconvinced that I'm doing it with any real degree of success.
Yes, it takes patience, and compassion, and love. More than I often think is possible to offer at 8:05 in the morning, day after day. Every child who passes me in the hallway contains multitudes; they have families and pressures and dreams and worries that they conceal with widely varying levels of mastery. They are in the most physically awkward stage of their lives, toeing the edge between child and adolescent, adolescent and adult, a constant push and pull between craving coddling and desiring freedom, a dichotomy played out in their gawky limbs, pimpled chins, flailing mannerisms. Their emotions ping pong off of each other, unable to find an even keel, a flowing stream; I have to be the flowing stream, offering them the stability they cannot grasp themselves. Sometimes I fail, because they piss me the hell off. That's when I remember I'm human too.
"Bye, Ms. Bruce!" they caterwaul down the hallway, and I wave and smile at their beaming cheeks, grey plaid skirts. "See you tomorrow!" And I leave, and walk to the train - "Au revoir, Ms. Bruce!" an eighth grader shouts - and I descend to the L train. The doors open and I step in and there they are.
Other other people's children.
Sometimes it doesn't even take that long. Sometimes I'll see some of my girls with a group of boys their age, doing that terrible dance of fear and attraction and repulsion that is standard in young teenagers plagued with brand new hormones. The boys are typically raucous, braying, while one or two of the girls are giving as good as they're getting and seek to outpace them in unruliness. There is always at least one girl who is visibly holding back, unsure of how or when to join the revelry, laughing at the antics playing out in front of her because there is nothing else to do (I remember you, I think, as I pass her). They are rarely doing anything wrong, and even if they were, I am not so far removed from that stage to forget how unconscionable it would be for a teacher to berate me, outside of school, past school hours, for being too loud in a public place. They don't acknowledge me, usually. Sometimes they will and the boys will stare at me curiously, and start to say something that I probably won't want to respond to or hear, so I say hi and keep walking. Don't believe them, whatever they tell you! I want to shout to the girls. They won't be decent human beings until about ten years from now! My way of thinking is problematic, and offensive, but so are most teenage boys.
Sometimes I study them in isolation, when I cannot compare them to any students of mine in the immediate vicinity. At Bedford Ave, at Union Square, depending on the time of day, and most notably, Broadway Junction. Every movement screams their own invincibility, their fierce pride in whatever it is they can take pride in: their expensive sneakers, their expensive coat, their imposing frame. In large numbers, they are nigh unbearable: loping up and down the train car, hollering incomprehensible obscenities and taunts, displaying a grossly exaggerated swagger: all of the machismo and bravado they can muster, growing exponentially in such close proximity to each other. I watch them shove and run and giggle, I watch the quieter ones roll their eyes and smirk, I watch the loudest ones yell their fearlessness into the empty spaces between their fear and want to pat their hand, their head, and tell them it's alright, it's fine. You don't have to try quite so hard. You'll get there eventually, wherever it is you're so desperate to go, so you can be who you think you're supposed to be.
And then I look at them, their dusky skin, their bright eyes, their sardonic smiles, and remember that no, they might not. They might not get there. They carry that primal knowledge in their swagger, their machismo, their bravado. I may very well not ever get there. They smile, but their jaws are tight, eyes hard. For some, "there" is simply the next day. The next month. The next year. They feel the statistics we spout academically in the marrow of their bones, in the terror that chokes their tears into hot blood and sarcastic anger.
And I look at them and remember that yes, this is how they are: today is everything, all at once, right now. Tomorrow is so insignificant when you're young and beautiful and unbreakable. I feel all of the impossible duality of their tiny, gigantic lives: so briefly on that train, so loudly on that train. Reckless innocence and pure corruption. They toe invisible lines with an agility they can't begin to recognize. I see them, though. I see them, and sometimes, it makes me smile, and then want to cry.
And sometimes, I don't want to cry at all. (I want to tell them that they serve as cautionary tales before we take our girls on field trips that rely on the train for transport: Don't be the annoying teenagers on the train, we supplicate. You know what we mean.) I want to tell them to quiet down, they're in a public space, for the love of God. These children who don't belong to me at all. Children loitering at the top of the subway steps, arguing, and children staring glossy-eyed at smart phones with cracked screens. Children navigating bodies that they don't yet fit into, but not for lack of trying. Children whose smiles falter when their friend glances away. Children who frantically finish their homework beside me. Children who close their eyes in weariness, backpacks heavy and ripped. Children necking in dark corners on the platform, under stairs. So impossibly young and growing too damn old, too fast.