On the train home from work today, I was reading a book. I was lucky to catch the express, so I only had a single stop commute. As I was leaving the subway station, I kept reading, passively listening to footsteps around me and letting those in a rush get by, timing my egress through the pipe-cleaner vertical turnstiles so I didn’t get mashed. A young man sidled up beside me, and said, rather gregariously, “That must be some good book for you to keep reading while you’re walking like that.” I told him it sure was (it wasn’t, and still isn’t), and kept reading. He asked what book it was.
At this point I was convinced he wanted something from me, but I looked up from my book, and into his eyes for the first time, and we began to talk. It went very nearly like this.
I said, “Well, it’s actually not my normal fare. I mean, it’s good writing, but the story—”
“What’s your normal stuff, then? What you usually read.”
“Science fiction. Lots and lots of science fiction.”
“Oh yeah? What’s that? Like, what kind of books? Which ones?”
“Well, have you ever read the Dune series, by Frank Herbert?”
“I’m not sure. Yeah, I think so. I think I did.” (Here I could not quell my smile.)
“Check it out. I guarantee it’ll treat you well.”
We were above ground by this point, and discovered to our mutual pleasure that we were serendipitously walking in the same direction. (West on Girard Ave from Broad St., for those interested.) Something else was said, and I asked him where he went to school. He lifted up his jacket, which he wore unzipped, and showed me the emblem on his shirt.
“HOPE. It’s a charter school.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard of it.”
“Man, it sucks there. It’s a terrible school. I got all As and Bs, but it’s not hard. I’m in the highest grade—well, not the highest grade—I’m in ten—but they just go over the same stuff all the time. For everybody else, it’s like they don’t get it or something. Maybe it’s because most of them smoke weed.”
Yes, there’s likely an association there, I said. I told him to stick to his studies. I started in talking about work—I’m that person, all of a sudden—and gave him some stories about adults I know who have spent too much time with drugs and regretted it, and are only now going back to get a GED, at 35 or 45. That seemed to validate his perspective, and he smiled at me.
I said, “Don’t ever stop learning. When I was little, I read a lot. My mom worked a lot when I was little, so I would read. She’d come home, pretty tired, of course, and I’d ask her about some words. I wanted to know what they meant. Every time, she told me the same thing: ‘Look it up!’ Every time!”
“She wouldn’t tell you? Really?”
“Yeah. But she was right, because now I feel like the only mistake I haven’t made is being sure that everything—that thing over there, or this, whatever—is learnable. I can learn that. I can learn this. You know?”
“Yeah. Sometimes, like if I’m at the library or something, I like to sit there and just think. I don’t always read, sometimes I just listen to music and think.”
“It seems to me that very many people are terrified of situations where all they can do is think. Sometimes people structure their life in activities so that they don’t have to think, and when they’re confronted with a situation where thinking is all they can do, they get scared. No one personality flaw hinders a person more than this, but everybody has it! It’s just a matter of when you shed it. I don’t know, but it seems to me like maybe you shed it a while ago.”
It was around this time that we’d reached an intersection where he needed to turn, and he asked for my “card.” I laughed and said that I had none, but that I’d happily share my email address with him. I did so, and he thanked me. He said he knew someone with my name who went to another high school in Philadelphia. I said I thought that was cool.