I had today off from my full time job and, as I often do when I have a weekday off, I decided to return to the classroom for a little extra cash. It's a mind-break from the puzzle that is social work, and gives me the chance to spend more time with kids and teens themselves - which I sadly don't get to do as often these days despite the fact that I essentially parent ten of them (or so their schools think I do).
The school where I taught is en route to my office so I was engaging in essentially the same daily commute with a plan to get off the train a few stops earlier. For some reason I decided to change to an N train - something I typically don't do because I've learned it isn't always faster - and then I got on a 4 instead of a 5 at Atlantic Avenue knowing I'd have to transfer at Franklin - something else I typically don't do because, well, I tend to doze on the train and I don't want to miss the transfer.
As I stepped onto the 4 train I immediately was taken aback at the sight of a woman sitting across from me in a long ombre-blonde wig and pants that were pulled down to her knees. Yes, her bare backside was squished right up against the same subway seat thousands of other riders sit down on every day. But this is New York, and I've seen crazier, so I kindof brushed it off and felt sad thinking about how she must have some mental health issues to work out like most people sitting inappropriately on the train and went about my normal ritual of rapping along to Hamiltunes and reminding myself not to stay on the train at Franklin.
I then noticed her top. This was a rather large woman - the denim jacket in her hand clearly reading 5x, which was probably a little too large but not by much - yet all she was wearing was this tiny zip-up hoodie that probably belonged to a child. Her entire right breast was poking out from under the sweater, and no there was no infant attached to it. She then began speaking. She was smiling and tossing back her hair as though she were flirting with a man she just met, telling him about how she was "cherokee and white" (she was not white, I can't speak for her Native American side though) and that's why he found her attractive. She said several other flirtatious comments to this man who was not there. It seemed clear at this point that she was in the middle of either some sort of schizophrenic episode or had gotten her hands on some K2, the latter seeming more likely.
Still, this all falls into the realm of fairly standard New Yorker behavior.
I then noticed that the two quiet, well dressed little girls next to her were playing their DS and not even a little bit concerned about moving away from her. They appeared to be around 8-10 years old and, while a LITTLE early, it isn't uncommon for kids that age to ride to school on the train or bus unescorted at that point. But there were empty seats abounding, why weren't they moving? Could they be with this woman? Nah, they're not even reacting. They're so well dressed, they're just distracted by the game and don't feel like getting up. Also, what was I going to do, jump up and ask them in a closed train within earshot of the obviously unpredictable woman? Nah I'm good.
We pulled into the station where I exit the train and hop over to the train I need to take. I look back as the woman continues to yell at this "man" she is speaking to and notice another woman around my age speaking to the little girls. She exits and I ask her if the little girls were with the woman.
"Yes. I work at Kings County and I told them that when they get to school they need to tell the school mommy needs to go to the hospital." She said they were receptive, and I then realized their quiet ignorance of the situation was likely a defense mechanism for the fear and uncertainty of what exactly was happening. How could it be that these two girls with perfectly styled hair and coordinated outfits were sitting next to their mother as she didn't even have her clothes on properly much less stylishly. I then began to wish I had asked what school the attend. The social worker in me wanted to get to the bottom of this and start making phone calls to the school to see if they could be waiting for the mother if and when she arrived to offer help, but I needed to catch my train and those trains don't wait - and I was already at that point where the next train would have made me officially late (this was one of those "last minute" assignments where I had to run out the door). I boarded the 2 train with a heavy heart.
And then the train didn't move.
I struck up a conversation with the Kings County lady and a colleague of hers who said she's seen this family on the 4 train more than once. We waited as the trains continued not to move. I began to worry I would be late, but also to question whether or not I should try to quickly run across the platform to do something ANYTHING to help these two little girls.
"Due to a stalled train and a signal malfunction there will be no 2 or 5 service between Franklin Avenue and Flatbush Avenue."
We wait a minute to see if they repeat that message, and they do, and I realize I've been given a chance. I'm going to be late at this point, what's a few more seconds? I dart back across to the 4, which has inexplicably also been hanging out in the station, tap one of the girl on the shoulder and ask what school she goes to. Mom stands up as if to ask what's happening, but she's so clearly not even present in the moment that I just kind of ignore knowing I'm about to run out of the station anyway.
The young girl, seeming a little confused by the question and obviously unsure she should be telling a stranger this (I was breaking all the stranger game rules here), tells me the name of her school and I thank her and dart off. As I leave the station and walk toward the bus I call my agency to let them know to notify the school where I'm working of the delay, and then I google the little girls' school. It's nowhere near where we are, leading me to be even more concerned as to why they were on the 4 train with their drugged mother after school hours had already started. I call the number google pulls up and navigate my way through the standard DOE touch menu until I get a human on the phone.
As I tell the lady on the other end what I have just seen she is horrified. She had me describe the girls' appearance and clothing and I begged her to please call 911 upon arrival. It then occurred to me that I probably could have done the same at the train station but I was so flustered I did the best I could.
I have no idea what came of this situation. Did these girls ever make it to school? Did they make it home? Is their mom okay? Did she get some help?
This haunted me ALL DAY. The images of those two girls sitting quietly as though this is simply their reality and there's "nothing to see here" is burned on my brain.
As I spent my day with a group of rambunctious, nerve-wracking, but genuinely adorable fifth graders I just kept thinking of how those two girls could be any of them. We have no idea in our schools what has happened at home the night before, or on the train on the way in. We have no idea if these kids had to get up this morning and get themselves dressed and ready and fed and out the door.
And yet we continue to push academic rigor and test scores and unprepared/unsupported teachers as our agenda in education reform, because that makes sense. Have one social worker per 500-1000 kids, have no sort of nurturing routine for the teachers, base teachers job evaluations on their ability to get kids to stand in straight silent lines, sit up straight while reading, and prevent disruptions. Yes. all of this makes sense.
Until we start providing more support services in our schools, you're going to see lots of kids riding trains with schizophrenic moms to a day of being told to walk silently in single file like you're in jail and then wondering why they can't seem to figure out the difference between one one hundredth and one one thousandth.
But for now, I'm thankful for changing up my normal commute and train delays, because the realizations I came to this morning while on that train were disturbing but necessary. We take for granted the option we have to opt out. Those of us from middle-class stable homes who went to decent schools have the choice to sit back and say "I'm so sorry I wish I could do more" and then go about their daily lives, but I just refuse to let that be a reality.