I always stand when I’m on the train. It’s my way of balancing—in my mind—the damage I do to my body by sitting for 8 hours per day. I also almost always wear sunglasses.
This particular day, I stood by the door, on my way home from a meeting in the Loop. It was something past seven o’clock, which meant I’d gratefully missed the rush hour crowds. Instead, of a car full of sardined people trying not to look at each other during their commute home, I was surrounded by people coming from appointments, after-work meetings, the gym, band practice—a car full of people pushing themselves to do more.
Trains are rather predictable. Full of stops and starts. The interesting bits are the people. I don’t remember which stop it was, but suddenly—just before the doors closed—a group of boys rushed into the car. Bursting with laughter and winded from their near miss, they raced toward the other end of the car.
Then, at the next stop, they came back to the end of the car I stood on. There were three. A skinny one, a tall one, and a fat one. Probably in ninth grade and all wearing the same uniform: khakis, white shoes and a white shirt. They were coming from school.
The best part about wearing sunglasses on the train is that you can watch people without making them feel uncomfortable. So, for a short moment, I watched these three boys. I watched the way they laughed and cracked jokes on each other, as only adolescent boys do. I watched as the fat one ate two packs of donuts without offering his friends any. I listened to them interweave advanced vocabulary with random cuss words. I watched as they discussed their favorite and least favorite teachers, friends and basketball tryouts.
It was basketball that turned the tide of the conversation. As they discussed upcoming tryouts, their faces lit up with excitement. The tall one said, “I just want to dunk!” The fat one replied, “Man, you can’t dunk.” And then the skinny, shy one said, “Man, I don’t care about dunking, I just want to improve my skills.” His friends laughed at him. So he said it again. They didn’t laugh the second time, which is not to say they understood.
With my sunglasses on, I watched the entire interaction…and smiled. The tall one got off first. They cracked a joke instead of saying goodbye. Then the skinny, shy one got off, one stop away from mine. He walked off the train. The doors remained open. He walked down the stairs. The doors remained open. I wondered if I should tell him that what he said was wonderful. The doors remained open.
Running after him, I finally caught him in the street.
“I just wanted to tell you I was listening to your conversation about basketball.”
“Well, what you said was brilliant. It will set you apart from your friends. Keep that perspective, not just in basketball, but in life. Don’t worry about dunking. Focus on improving your skills, yourself. Let that be your focus in life. Dunking, success, it will come if you keep practicing. Don’t get sidelined by the flashy tricks.”
I’m rarely pray, but as I walked home, I said a small prayer that he would remember our conversation. That as he grows up, a young black boy in a mixed-class neighborhood, he remembers that he was smart enough to see what others didn’t.