Molly, the first kid, is my 13-year-old. Recently, she’s started taking walks around the neighborhood listening to podcasts, snapping photos of trees, or whatever strikes her as beautiful. Afterward, she’ll sit on the porch teaching herself to play Phoebe Bridgers songs on guitar under the dissonance of rush hour traffic. She has giant eyes and round glasses. She makes elaborate breakfasts for herself and eats slowly, meditatively.
One of the many things I love about Molly and all of these kids who learned how to pass the pandemic time is that they know how to be alone well.
Last Saturday afternoon, I was driving off to run an errand when I caught a glimpse of her walking down the street, staring at her phone. I called to give her a talk about being aware of her surroundings. She was quick to explain why I shouldn’t worry, that she is aware and careful. I believe her.
But I wonder if she heard about the girls who were raped on SEPTA. I haven’t been able to bring myself to talk to her about that. That’s probably because I know one of them. Let’s call her “the second girl.”
I saw the second girl, disoriented in the street, within an hour of the attack. She missed class for a couple of days as she dealt with some fallout, and then she was back in school, finishing up end-of-the-marking period projects, waiting in the cafeteria line for a sandwich, going about her routines.
Lola, the third girl, is an amalgam, born out of concern for privacy, of some girls I’ve taught in recent months. With glow-y skin framed by a black hijab, she sits in the middle of the classroom. She wears fresh-smelling perfume and jangling bracelets. There she is: the one with the broad smile at the center in the TikTok videos she makes with her two best friends.
Clear-headed and forthright about the books we read, Lola is the first to grasp and question broad themes. At first, when discussing Of Mice and Men her view was that author John Steinbeck wasn’t equipped to write about Curley’s wife, the unnamed woman Lennie squeezes to death, or Crooks, the most isolated of the isolated men as the only Black character.
“As a White man,” she said, “there is just no way he could have known what it feels like to be either one of them.” When all was said and done, she started to question that view. I told her it was okay to just be in the space of questions — that I pretty much live there myself. Her raised eyebrows and half-smile relayed her interest in such an abstraction.
She has straight A’s but falls asleep in class a lot. She says it’s because she’s been up late doing her homework. I believe her.
But I wonder if there is more to it. She has a long commute, a sister to pick up from daycare, and then, an evening of more caretaking while her mom works an overnight shift.
Aside from the classroom naps, and because she lives in one of the deadliest zip codes in the city, Lola is almost always on high alert. I was once told not to take it personally when kids fall asleep in class because sometimes it’s the safety of the space that makes them sleepy. So, sometimes I let Lola sleep.
Last Saturday night, because her mom was home talking to a friend in the other room, Lola was feeling drowsy and less hyper-vigilant than usual as she scrolled through Instagram. Then came the pop pop pop of gunfire, which was not unusual except this time there were about forty pops, nine of which hit their targets at an infamous intersection three hundred yards from Lola’s house.
Early in the year, Lola giggled when she told me she has been in the vicinity of so many shootings she has lost count. Quite a few kids giggled while describing exposures to violence. I brought that up with my psychologist brother who confirmed what I suspected: the giggling is a classic trauma response.
I wonder if Lola slept through the sirens. What I know is that Sunday would bring chores and homework, maybe a trip to the laundromat, and, on Monday morning, she would be back in the classroom, questioning the classics and finding joy by sneaking in some dance videos in the bathroom.
Next year, Molly will attend a public high school, although which high school remains a mystery as it does for most Philly kids. They apply to the District, choose five schools, and then wait around for a few months hoping they win a spot at one of their “top” choices. I say “top” because even our elite high schools could use some investment, to put it mildly.
Life would be simpler if she could walk to a fully equipped Germantown High School and pursue her interests in the arts. But that’s an abandoned building now. Roxborough High School, which is not within walking distance, is her official neighborhood school. There was a mass shooting outside the building about six weeks ago. I doubt many families are opting for that school this year, however capable the staff is. We are not opting for Roxborough.
Wherever she ends up, I will be driving her until thoughts of the second girl stop haunting me and/or unless things on SEPTA improve. And whatever happens with all of that, I’ll know that most of the kids I have come to know as a teacher don’t have the luxury of a parent with enough time and money to traipse across all of the construction zones and traffic jams of this city to get their kids to school. Even the second girl had to get right back on the train.
I wish things were different. I wish Lola could daydream about her future while walking to a brightly lit building with a quiet library and some green space, a school that sits at the center of her community, with yearly musicals and marching bands, exciting electives, plenty of AP classes and football games that didn’t have to be cancelled because of guns. But Lola can’t even daydream about such a school. It’s just not safe to walk and daydream in her neighborhood now.
Speaking of dreams, I keep seeing the disoriented eyes of the second girl in mine. Unlike Lola, who is an amalgam, she was real. My daughter is real. I worry about them a lot.
Speaking of worrying, Molly worries about gun violence, climate change, and social inequality, while Lola worries about gun violence, bills coming due, and police brutality. Neither has gone through a week without hearing about a mass shooting somewhere. A narrative of scarcity pervades their lives, and so, they feel like education is a game they have to win, rather than a right they get to enjoy. And then there is the social media perfectionism they extend to their academics, their beauty routines, and, no doubt, their internal dialogues. They are bombarded with stories of conflict and strife, and yet, I find, these post-pandemic kids are remarkably skilled at seeking and finding ways to be creative and joyful.
You may hear them described as distracted, and they are- but so am I, and so are you. Resilient, some say. “These kids are gritty and resilient” — as if the kids had any choice in the matter. Now we keep hearing that they are “behind.” Behind what, exactly? Behind older generations? Really? Because of a few percentage points on a math test? Can’t we have a bit more imagination about all that they learned of the world while coming of age during one of the most extraordinary moments in the last century?
I submit that most of the claims made about kids today are narrow and fear-based and that there is something more transcendent about them that we ignore to our own detriment. God knows we can be forgiven for all of our fears, it is an absurdly precarious world for so many, but we should not fear them. Instead, we should revel in them — and their fresh power, a power that comes from their profound patience for and acceptance of, the world as it is, in all of its brutality and beauty.
Maureen Boland, a former high school English teacher, is now senior writer at Mighty Writers.
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