My first thought when the gaggle of middle school-aged boys boarded my crosstown bus was how lucky that I’d be disembarking soon. They were without adult companions, clearly coming from an after-school activity, exuding the day’s pent-up exuberance. The two years I spent as an 8th-grade classroom teacher and my years in youth drama taught me well to expect noise and boisterous behavior. Nothing prepared me for what they actually brought onto that bus.
Nothing except perhaps Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange dystopia.
There were ten of them. The oldest looked to be a few months shy of his fifteenth birthday. Small, smooth-faced, and wiggly, they seemed adorable – all cherubic faces and cuddly little bodies. Giddy, silly boys volleying jocular epithets in half-changed voices that vacillated from soprano to crackling baritone.
“You call that a jump shot? Dude. He was just standing on tippytoes like he was spitting at the hoop.”
“Truth, man? I don’t give a &*&* about no jump shot. I’m down with the cheerleaders.”
“No shit! I’d be down with them. Literally. Like down in all that . . . .”
I could not believe what I was hearing. Suddenly, without warning, the banter turned brutish.
“You see Lilly this mornin’?”
“She looked hot.”
“Right? That’s some rack she’s carryin’ – and that booty. I just wanna. . . . ”
“I got plans for that one. Oh yeah. You c’n help. One of these days after school, we could drag her into the girls’ room. We cover her mouth so she can’t scream, and we . . . . “
The child went on to describe his plan for the girl in question, a plan that turned darker as his giggles grew more mirthful. In lurid detail, he shared the stages of a rape he had in mind. He and his friends bounced up and down like toddlers on a trampoline. Raucous laughter crescendoed to cheering as his words slithered toward the narrative’s climax. Shrill expletives pierced the bus walls with vile, violent language.
My fellow passengers and I sat stock still, afraid to look at the boys, afraid to change expressions. No one moved, no one spoke. Our heads down, we all struggled to conceal our collective grimace.
I escaped at the fifth stop. And as I caught my breath, my guilt set in.
I should have spoken up. I teach older students, and I have never been afraid of confrontation. Why was it that I was so intimidated, that we all were so intimidated by this group of changelings?
For one thing, the boys’ behavior was all too familiar. We see it on Youtube, on Facebook, in the news, in our midsts. Youthful aggressors testing their limits by whatever displays of disrespect they can muster. They carry amplifying devices in the streets and on public transportation, blasting their angry music in all directions. They push old people out of their way to take seats when the vehicles are crowded, and they lash out at anyone who gets to a seat ahead of them. A very fat girl pushed me aside so she could occupy three spaces on a crowded D-train one day, and when I scowled, she stomped on my foot to make sure I knew my place. We are unprepared for this madness, and so we are silent. These kids are empowered by forces we strain to understand.
In NY, quality of life laws have been thrown to the wayside, and the police are powerless to silence the noise or search for guns. It’s clear to those of us who live among the toughest ones that they are packing. We can see the firearms that are only perfunctorily concealed beneath hoodies and oversized sweatpants. But we can do nothing.
Who in their right mind would speak up? There are myriad stories circulating about the danger of dissent. So little as a disapproving face can incite an assault.
The country is led by a moronic bully, whose mentality is exactly like these boys’. He brags about his exploits, disrespects just about everybody, throws his considerable weight around without concern for anyone but himself, and he publicly uses language that makes him sound tough to adolescents. Our so-called president is an overgrown middle-schooler with no self-constraint, and he licenses our children to feel impervious. We can’t touch them. They are in control.
These kids are even less sophisticated than Burgess’ droogs.* They navigate a real-life Orwellian Airstrip, speak mindless newspeak, and eschew reason. To them war is peace, hate is love, and respect is folly. They need fear no one. There is no consequence anyone dares dole that impresses them.
And therein lies my great despair. And guilt. How do we stand up to it all? To the evil empire that has the country in its grip? To the oppressiveness of racism and classism that holds us all down? To the bonds of overzealous liberalism that makes it impossible to protect a city from itself? To the mob mentality that has put us where we are and to the other one that holds us prisoners to political correctness?
There must be a way to drive America sane.
I just wish I knew what that way is.
*members of street gangs