"Great perils have this beauty, that they bring to light the fraternity of strangers."
~ Victor Hugo
On the day before we left England, my sister and I boarded the train that would take us from Oxford to London Paddington station. We planned to spend the last night in a hotel near the airport to more easily catch early morning flights to the U.S. We were in good spirits after two weeks of investigating the countryside, warmed by the cheerful gold of the Cotswold stone cottages and welcomed by lots of lively chatter about food, weather, and shared political concerns with the locals. As we packed our bags the night before, we laughed about the odd treasures we'd found while I obsessed about lugging the heavy iron door knocker I had to buy, certain I'd never find anything like it in the states.
The rail car was crowded. As we entered, a fellow of about 35 shouted to my sister, "Here, you can have my seat!". Immediately another fellow rose, saying we should, "...sit together."
The one about 35 began talking aloud about how "...people still have manners" - "...still do the right thing", "It's all about the way you're raised.". We all smiled, nodded and agreed. A man sitting directly behind me whose face I couldn't see, whose voice told me he was about the same age, began talking. Something he said made me realise the first man as well as a others seated nearby, were newly released from prison. This was their ride home.
Next to the outspoken one was a silent young man of about 25, and directly across from me, an equally reserved boy, younger, his hand wrapped in a large gauze bandage. The silent ones made no eye contact. The tell tale signs were there; shaved, military style haircuts, worn, ill-fitting clothes, each carrying large plastic bags filled with personal possessions, no pair of eyes the same - one uncertainty, another, pretense, another, a plea for answers. My heart sank.
The man directly behind me seemed eager to help...more eager than the average fellow traveler would be. I turned to ask, "What is your work?" "I'm a Baptist minister in London", he replied.
The ride from Oxford to London is relatively short - about one hour. There was a lot of small talk - "kids today", "gang related stabbings in London", "going home", "never going back to that place", "parents not being strong enough to stand up to their kids". As the outspoken man continued talking, the silent ones held my attention.
I felt a mounting pressure to do something, say something, help in some way. What could I do? I don't live in England, I have no idea why these young men were incarcerated, what crimes were charged or committed.
The man 'of 25' troubled me most. Despite his large size, I saw a boy, paying attention to everything, saying nothing, glancing at the free-talking man, avoiding looking at the rest of us. I didn't engage him, not wanting to add to his discomfort. Everything about him was awkward, unsure, as if overtaken by his own body, bigger, more mature than his years. Watching him, I felt a deep sadness. He could have been my son.
I did speak to the boy in front of me. I asked, "Are you about 18?" "Yes", he said. He was dark skinned, the stark whites of his eyes illuminating a soulful fragility. I asked, "Where will you go? Home?"
Barely raising his voice he said he lived in a group home. "Your parents?" He had not seen his mother and stepfather since he was "about 13". He had "no idea" where they were.
I asked what it is he would like to do, what work does he think about...suddenly he lifted his head, his voice more audible, "I want to be a construction manager", he said.
I was beginning to feel how close to the end of our trip we were. Looking at this boy's face, aware of changing scenery beyond the corner of my eye, I knew if I was going to help at all, I had little time. I didn't want to impose. I didn't want to lecture. My mind was running in step with the speeding train.
As gently as possible, I took the risk, pausing between every idea, watching his face, making sure I didn't overwhelm this child..."I think it's a wonderful goal. Start with small steps. Maybe a job at a site where you'll be able to learn." Then..."Please be patient with yourself." Then..."Read what you can, learn one thing each day." Then..."Gather, pay attention...carry your dream with you." - Then..."You can do this."
As I spoke, he lifted his head higher still...for the first time, looked me directly in the eyes, "Thank you...I appreciate what you said."
With the same crowded flurry as we had getting on, we exited this box of people who shared so much, yet lived such different lives. Contradictions. The richness of our experience, the crushing sterility of theirs. Our merriment, their reluctance.
I haven't stopped thinking about those boys. I will always wonder, I will always hope they find better lives.
Could I have done more? Should I have offered my contact information - why didn't I? I tell myself I just couldn't think fast enough.
I've been thinking about word offerings from one person to another...do they make a difference? Are they more imposition than gift? Were my words too much, too grand, assuming one can lift oneself up from such a limiting, even damaging place, as this boy seemed to be in?
These questions in mind, I remembered a professor I'd met in college...first semester, first year. Her name was Ms. Phillips. Ms. Phillips wore a tightly wrapped bun, Harris-tweed suits and 'sensible shoes'. She was the type of teacher I liked best, formal, intimidating, one you could trust to get the best out of you, a no-nonsense kind of woman. As she handed me an essay I'd written, she said, "I hope you'll go on to get your Ph.D.". I thought she'd mistaken me for someone else. I was a single mother, working, worried about money, returning to school as an 'older' student, wondering if I belonged there, thinking it might be too late to start again. Her words changed my life.