Teenage girl screaming.
Boy holding girl’s backpack over the railing protecting pedestrians from the East River. Boy has a backpack of his own.
-Stop, stop it! Stop!
-Say you’re sorry. Say you’re sorry!
-I’m sorry! I’M SORRY!
Boy dangles backpack closer to the water.
A conversation. Student begins:
-I think I’m going to make you a card at the end of the school year.
-Thank you, but that’s completely unnecessary.
-I know, but I think I will. Doing things to make people happy makes me happy!
Man holding woman against a brick wall, yelling, hands waving.
Woman trying to move away.
Man blocking woman with his body.
A conversation. Young woman begins:
-Should we call the police?
-Shit, he grabbed her bag again.
-Call. We’re definitely calling.
A conversation. Student begins:
-How’s your day going?
-Oh it’s great, thanks, how’s yours?
-Mine’s good. I’m glad yours is good. As long as you’re smiling!
Teenage boy and girl in a headlock. Both are spinning around, out of breath.
Passerby slows down, offers a long look.
Boy lets go of girl and girl responds in turn. Both laughing.
“She’s looking at us!”
Both run off, still laughing.
Some of these interactions are months old, burned into my memory like a muscle that grows stiff in the rain. Unwelcome. Uncomfortable. Troubling.
Others are newer, fresher, still turning over in my mind. Still trying to process what I’ve seen and heard, said or done.
“Doing things to make people happy makes me happy!” I smiled. I waved goodbye. Wished him a good afternoon. Realized my heart rate had gone up. Realized I was afraid.
Because such a sincere statement delivered with such obvious joy had brought me right back to the boy threatening to drop the girl’s backpack into the water, months earlier. I’m sure everything was in that backpack. Her schoolwork, her wallet, likely her phone. Would he have done it? In a moment of raging hormones, a crying girl, and feeling a surge of power . . . would he have done it?
And, just as pressing, how would the girl have responded? How did she respond to the threat once her bag was safely recovered? Did she walk away, never to speak to him again? Did she express her anger that he’d take advantage of her trust? Or did she let him back into her good graces because being with someone is better than no one?
The man yelling at the woman tell us that no, someone is not always better than no one.
The teenagers laughing as they play-wrestled tell us that affection can come in many forms.
But the fight between the man and woman tell us that affection, or what we perceive as affection, can sometimes be dangerous and even deadly.
Seeking first to make others happy sometimes comes at the expense of oneself and one’s own best interests. For this reason, I’m concerned about the student described above. He’s what we label “vulnerable”, which can have many meanings. He does fine academically but remains on the periphery of his grade’s social circles. He relates better to adults than to his peers, usually staying after class to chat, often walking down the hallway in conversation with an adult. He doesn’t seem to mind being alone and often spends recess indoors when everyone else is outside.
His comments remind me of myself in a lot of ways. Doing for others is a salient part of my identity, but I also know that it’s okay to say no. Over time, I’ve learned that sometimes putting others first can be detrimental to personal happiness and growth if engaging with others’ interests comes before acknowledging my own hopes, dreams, and desires. Coming to that realization has been a bumpy road and while a little bruising is okay, I’d like to spare my student (and anyone else) some of the scars that have resulted along the way.
Not too long ago, in a dark time of self-doubt and uncertainty, a friend reassured me that I was doing fine. “You do the best you that you’re capable of and if you make a mistake, you learn.” That message has played on loop in the back of my mind for months now. It has become a mental rallying cry, a checkpoint before making decisions, responding to others, or trying to challenge the status quo.
And that’s what I want that man and woman, those teenagers, and all of my students to know. That’s what I would have liked to say. Do the best you that you’re capable of and learn from your mistakes. Keep track of who you are and who you want to become. Everyone else can wait.