Bystander

I’m going to talk about something unrelated to writing or teaching this week, just because it’s on my mind.

Taking the bus to get around leads me to see a ton of different things, and all sorts of different people. The vast majority of these experiences are anywhere from positive to at least inoffensive. Occasionally someone on the bus is having a bad day, and while that’s generally unpleasant, I can’t remember the last time I felt threatened or disturbed or the need to step into a situation revolving on a bus. Until this week, and it’s stuck with me enough that I’m feeling the need to talk about it here. Maybe because it’s part of the story of my week, and the larger story of the people I witnessed.

On my way into work, I watched as a mother and son got onto the bus, from my vantage point facing the doors (if you’re unfamiliar with OC Transpo, there’s bench seating facing the back door). The mother was immediately barking at her son to sit in his seat and stay there, while she stood nearby due to the lack of other seats. Parents snap at their kids all the time, so I didn’t think anything of it, figuring the kid needed a little redirecting. Then I heard the mother keep barking, to stay in his seat and sit up straight and sip from a drink, which when I looked up she was practically shoving in the kid’s face. And when I looked at the kid – who was maybe ten, if that – he clearly looked upset. Not in the rebellious, I-don’t-like-when-my-mother-is-stern sort of way, but in a way that almost looked like fear.

At which point, I really paid attention, being careful not to let the mother notice. I watched as someone got up from another seat, and then the young bearded guy with the headphones I see every morning shifted seats so mother and son could sit together. As soon as they were seated, the mother immediately started barking at her son to sit up straight, which did nothing to fix the hunch as the kid sat. Followed by insisting that he should bring the straw of his drink up to his mouth instead of leaning toward it, even though it looked like the kid wasn’t capable of sitting back anymore than he was. At this point, I was mostly watching the kid, comparing him to students I’ve taught with a variety of physical limitations, and trying to decide how much of the hunch in his back might be out of his control, which would explain the slightly frantic look in his eyes – wanting to sit up straighter so his mom would stop yelling at him, but unable to do so. While I was keeping an eye on this, the mother started saying that she’s “figured him out,” as though he’s a misbehaving terror and she’s seen through whatever game he’s playing with her, and that if he doesn’t “behave” they’d be talking about it after school. I could’ve sworn she said they’d be “going on a little field trip” if things went that way, and I had no idea what that might mean, but obviously it didn’t sound good.

At this point, I wondered how serious this situation is that I’m watching. And I wasn’t the only one. The young bearded guy started to glance back, and I spotted another guy seated nearby who was watching things as closely as I was. I started trying to catch their eye, looking for allies, deciding if this is the sort of situation where Mr. Crilly needs to step in and cross that line between Teacher and Protector – which I’ve never had to do, in this sort of context before. Unfortunately, the mother noticed Young Bearded Guy, too, and told him the classic line about taking pictures instead of staring. I didn’t catch what he said back, but the mother made it clear that all she was doing was teaching her son to sit up straight, and that Young Bearded Guy should mind his business.

So what do I do at this point? With just a couple stops until I’m supposed to get off to go to work, scenarios start running through my head. The most direct route is to call the mother out and make it clear what I think about her parenting – but she has a right to parent however she wants, for the most part, and she probably knows it. If I’d been quicker when they were shuffling seats earlier, I could’ve stepped between mother and son and asked if he was okay, which is probably not the safest option and something I’d missed my chance at. I thought about leaning forward and trying to ask the kid his name, particularly his last name, and then figuring out who I can talk to in my network about maybe getting someone of authority to look into this family. I seriously entertained the idea of skipping my stop, staying on the bus until this mother and son reached his school, following them inside and then speaking to the school administration, like some TV movie social worker. And then explaining to my principal that I didn’t show up for my first class, and the thirty students I’m actually responsible for, because I was stalking a mother whose parenting style rubbed me the wrong way.

And so I got off the bus at my stop, and watched it roll away until I couldn’t see it anymore. And I’m still not right with that decision.

Maybe this family was just having a rough day. I’ve heard parents yell at their children way louder and way fiercer than this woman, in public. Maybe this mother is all talk when she’s frustrated, and it never goes beyond that (not that that’s a good situation for a kid anyway). Or maybe there’s something more going on there, which is why my gut was filling me with all kinds of worry. I’ll never know, because as a teacher I’ve been conditioned that a parent has way more rights when it comes to their kids than anyone else (especially strangers) and there’s a surprisingly wide gap in how our society treats harsh parenting versus actual abuse.

But it’s going to be worst case scenarios in my mind for a little while, I think.

To be clear, I don’t want any advice. I don’t want any comments saying that it isn’t my place to get involved in a situation like that, and that it’s better I stayed out of it, or whatever. I know that. Which is largely why I didn’t get involved. I just can’t shake this feeling that maybe I missed an opportunity to change the story for that kid, even just for a moment. I don’t even have a pithy or insightful takeaway from this; I think I just want this particular piece of this kid’s story to be out there, so that maybe the next person who brushes that story will know how to handle it better than I did.

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