Girl on the J Train

Recently, there was a girl on the train who left me broken-hearted. I haven’t been able to get her out of my head, and I want to. It was 7:30am on the Queens-bound J train, when a Black teenaged girl aggressively accused the Latina woman across from her of photographing or recording her with her phone. It’s a far-fetched accusation in this day of selfies, FaceTime and everything else happening on phones, yet not far-fetched in this day of civilian documentarians, and Worldstar, and publicly shaming each other every chance we get. Nobody but that woman knows if she was violating this girl’s privacy, but this girl wasn’t going down without an assault on everyone within earshot.

For ten whole minutes (and with only 10-20 second pauses every few minutes) this girl insulted the woman’s looks, intelligence, her assumed career, sex life and home life, and physically engaged her by getting within inches of her face multiple times, verbally threatening to harm and kill her (and anyone else on the train who got in the way). Her uneven, clumpy, bleached blond weave looked as if she had recently been in a fight.

She weighed maybe a buck 10 soaking wet, no meat to spare on her bones. Initially, the woman (who appeared to be in her early 30s) argued back, denying the accusation and asserting her right to hold her phone in any position she wanted. But when the girl stood over her, shouting in her face and threatening her, she silenced. It must have clicked then that this girl was willing to get physical; the woman wasn’t. Or she reminded herself that she is a woman and this was a little girl. She may have thought about the job she was headed to, and her family at home, a criminal record, money for bail and lawyers, physical recuperation, that she’s supposed to know better, the ramifications of seriously hurting this girl…I felt my heart start to race and wished someone would step in. And I thought about being that someone, but then considered all those things I thought that woman must have been considering herself (and here I was, sitting next to one of my own students on our way to the 3rd day of a new school year).

I became anxious wondering what my capoeira training would have led me to do if I had been the adult in the situation. Would I have been able to sit there and ignore her? Or would my desire to teach her a lesson, to let her know that she messed with the wrong one today have gotten the best of me? Sometimes, for the greater good you just have to put people in their place, right? In the end, I didn’t know how this girl would react to me if I intervened, and the situation was too visible, too heated to enter. I guess we all decided that “ignoring” her was the best thing to do (including the victim). 

Instead, I acknowledged to myself how I was hating this girl because of her merciless abuse of another woman, and another brown woman at that. And because she was relentless, carrying on by herself long after the initial confrontation. And because the words spewing from her mouth and her outrageous behavior were disgusting and vile, which made this girl disgusting and vile, even though she may not really be. Is it low self esteem? Is she being abused? What environment had she come from this morning before getting on the train and confronting this woman? Maybe she was a victim who was self-soothing by victimizing someone else. Regardless, it was painful to witness, painful to abstain from intervening.

I was mad that this wasn’t a girl I had a relationship with, so that I could talk to her and help her realize how she could have handled this differently. I was grateful that this girl didn’t get the fight she was seeking (or fronting as if she were seeking) today. I hoped she would go through the rest of her day calmer because she had gotten to vent, rather than feeling stifled for having not been able to fight. I hoped that woman was able to regroup and be effective in her day. I hoped to never witness something this awful again, but know that it’s too likely.  

The incident heightened the I wish I have for our girls (and boys) daily – that they learn to strike the balance between not living their lives based on the standards and opinions of others, but caring enough about their image at all times to carry themselves in a respectable manner; that they know they are queens but that with this (status) comes responsibility; that they become their thoughts, and that what they believe about themselves is positive so they can manifest and convey it to the world. I want our girls to love themselves so much that they can’t imagine not loving others as genuinely. It’s a true battle – especially with our girls – to help them understand that they can be strong-willed and stand up for themselves, demand respect and be assertive without being aggressive or violent or the loudest in the room; that quiet power is still power, and that they’ll actually become stronger when they can better negotiate dangerous and negative defenses.

This is not to say that I don’t understand feelings of volatility and anger that arise, particularly when you feel devalued, demeaned, oppressed, irrelevant. I feel these helpless, enraging emotions from time to time, too, and know I’m supposed to be mature enough to not let them get the best of me, but that’s just not always the case.

I guess I’m just writing this as a way to deal with the range of emotions I experienced during this incident. But also as a plea to folks to make it a point to be a positive influence in young peoples’ lives. Compliment them, encourage them, teach them. The basis of being a kid is that there are things to be learned and mistakes to be made. But the supporting cast – the adults who surround them – have a responsibility to guide and make the process of becoming productive, fulfilled individuals and citizens as meaningful and safe of a journey as possible. Please, let’s commit to building girls’ and boys’ confidence and capacity for recognizing and honoring their self-worth. Whatever young people you are in contact with, show them love so they can internalize it and reflect it back to the world. It’ll benefit us all.