My morning cab ride came to three short sudden stops at a traffic light. As quickly as adrenalin coursed through my veins, I expected road rage to spew from the driver in the front seat. Instead I received an unexpected smile of concern and a polite apology. He explained that he was avoiding the pedestrians because this is New York and… here I expected him to start the ranting and raving about the entitled jaywalkers who have no boundaries or street etiquette. He went on to say “because this is New York and everyone is a potential customer. Again, I am sorry, miss.” With that surprising perspective, my tension was gone and we began getting to know each other despite the fact that I was in a rush and getting out in 3 blocks.
In under three minutes, I learned that he was from Nigeria, Lagos to be exact, that he had 1 brother and 4 sisters, that his mother gave birth to twins but they died during infancy, he went to school in France which is why he speaks French so well, and that he loves NYC and thinks there is nowhere better in the world to live. He learned that I also love NYC and believe it is the greatest city in the world, that my mother worked for Nigerian Airlines, her twin sister worked for the Nigerian embassy in Spain, and that I have not given birth to twins but he believes I will because, according to him, it is in my blood. In under three minutes, we forged a common bond.
In a similar fashion, my colleague Greg and I were going to a school in East Flatbush, running from a train to a $1 van (currently at $2) to get to a school in time. Just being in the van took me back to my travels to Central America and the Caribbean… hot, crowded, loud with music, and a barely understandable driver whose driver’s license should be questioned. And just like in my travels, a bond from a collective journey was made instantly. Unfamiliar to the neighborhood, the other customers and driver took great care in ensuring our arrival to our destination, minding the stops, opening the van door for us and sending us off into the next part of our day with well wishes.
When we arrived at the school, I found myself feeling the opposite of how my day started, becoming increasingly sad with each class period we observed. These students were feeling such a tremendous range of emotions from low self-worth, frustration from school conditions, anger for being ignored or having to get attention or instruction, confusion from a lack of cognitive understanding, to general hormonal bursts. Something as simple as having to wait to sharpen a pencil, or take off a book bag, or repeat something can have a deeper meaning and be a catastrophic emotional trigger.
While these children are in middle school, I see the same emotional challenges of learning and understanding in my daughter. She is beyond consolation when she can’t open a cabinet door or reach the top of a shelf to get the colorful object she sees, or if her hand is wet and she simply doesn’t want it to be. Truth is, I see it in myself when I really want some pizza and can’t have it or my hair just won’t stay in place no matter what I do. I see it in all of us too… because we all want something and we definitely all need something. Discovering that need can only be done when we reach our hands across humanity to get know each other. It is the difference between saying these children and our children.
So let’s imagine that school isn’t separate from life, but part of life. That the cab and the van are part of our day not just vehicles for our events. Our life is a journey together on this big yet small planet, and we are fellow travelers in a bus, train, airplane, elevator, stairwell, hallway, street, and time. Can it really be that hard to understand one another? At least one small part of one another? My nameless driver reminded me today that his concern for me was because "In NY, everyone is my family."