Thursday, January 22, 2015

Public Transportation Curriculum

When we are out and about late afternoon, it is difficult to fight the sinking feeling when I see the all too familiar yellow buses.  A little bit of the feeling is the resource intensiveness of the super security to go a short distance versus the relatively low economic resource levels of children in our city.  More of it, however, is the knowledge that those children, as well as those in the bubbles of their parents' vehicles, are missing the tremendous number of educational opportunities on the NFTA buses and metro rail.  Indeed, all cities with relatively significant public transportation systems have unique systems and environments for learning.

Some of it is what you expect, geography and timing, but much more of it is character and socialization.  Kids in cars have no real responsibility for their own transportation.  They can't because they can't drive.  Besides putting their seat belt on without being asked and not distracting mom and dad, there's nothing.  Students on yellow buses can make sure to be at the stop on time and behave, but nothing else.  My kids have to carry their own bus passes, get them out at the right time, not lose them, make sure they scan, pull for the stop at the right time, etc.  These are not tremendously difficult things to do, but they need to do the same things adults do in order to ride.  They get real responsibilities sooner.

There are many rewarding social encounters.  Often, someone sees us and alerts me to a good place to take kids or some event for them nearby that I hadn't heard about.  Sometimes they witness kind adults and teenagers giving up their front seats for elderly or disabled people.  This is something they are starting to do.  One time, my son chatted with a man who was impressed with a story he told and encouraged him to write a book.

There are also social encounters that just don't happen in other environments since there are so few other opportunities to be in close quarters with strangers.  Many are great learning opportunities.  We witnessed two men heckling a woman over her hat one day and the incident had many components including: how to behave in public, freedom of religious expression, the lack of correlation between religious beliefs and proper behavior sometimes, as well as the idea that sometimes even the truth need not be stated.  We discussed these things the best we could given their complexity and their current ages.  Another time, we met someone on the bus who clearly had a hard life and was facing several hardships.  The kids kept pointing out several ways she and I were similar.  When I talked to them later, I tried to make them understand that often the only difference between someone who is doing okay and someone facing hardships are a few wrong turns, some of which may be outside of their control.  I hope they are learning empathy and compassion.

The more of these encounters and experiences we have, the more I believe that the decline of public transportation is one of many reasons that individualism and materialism seem to be so high in our culture.  There is no longer a sense that we are all more similar than than we are different or that we are all in it together.  It is easier to see others as "other" or even less than human when you don't have to get close to them.  People can more easily be in bubbles: in cars driving from their homogenous town past those "other" kinds of people in those "other" neighborhoods.

Hopefully, I am countering some of this bubble culture with my kids.  Only time will tell if riding around on the bus is the answer to responsibility and character building.