On Friday, I went into the city on the train. I’ve become so suburban. Was the city always so crowded? I missed the first metro because I wasn’t pushy enough, and stood there agape (with a couple of other clueless souls) as the doors closed in my face. A woman in a red coat actually pushed me out of the way so she could board instead of me. I assumed that she had somewhere to be that was more important than my somewhere. I still got to my conference in plenty of time, so all was well. Still, I’d forgotten that some people live with that much crowding all the time, and that the natural response to crowding seems to be to ignore that anyone else has needs as important as your own.
After my little seminar (a little educational symposium on how teach in a way that your students actually learn, which, like many of these sessions, managed to demonstrate that your students could be less bored but possibly not learn anything new), I had a lovely lunch with my brother (thanks, Luke!), and then headed back to the train station so I could get back to the suburbs in time for Owen’s swimming lesson. I missed the first train, but caught the second in plenty of time, and sat down to enjoy the ride. I read a little bit of Wilkie Collins’s The Evil Genius (recommended by a former student: kind of like Jane Eyre gone bad, but — alas — bad in Victorian literature often means sappy).
In any case, we arrived at my home station and I and several other people waited patiently for the doors to open. We waited. Then I pushed the “open door” button, though you don’t usually have to. But the doors stayed closed and we waited some more. Then I followed some preteen boys who were running toward the front of the train (thinking that it was just our door that was faulty). But that door wasn’t opening either. We passengers looked shiftily at each other, muttering out loud in English and French. Several of us eyed at the emergency stop buttons, shining red with loud warnings not to touch them unless there was a real emergency, and threats of fines if you pressed the buttons without due cause.
And that was just it. It wasn’t an emergency. It was an inconvenience. A big one. The next station is a 30-40 minute walk back over the bridge and onto the island. I would not only miss swimming but would leave Owen to be possibly the last child to be gathered from the daycare on a Friday afternoon.
I stood there as the train moved slowly forward onto the bridge, defeated and resigned. I wished I had pulled on the emergency button, but I’m too reasonable (passive?), it seems.
As it turned out, someone in charge finally realised that the doors hadn’t opened. When the train was halfway across the bridge, it stopped again, and we were let out of the last door that was still on the platform. I climbed out, exhilarated to be free of what had felt for a moment like a trap. It hadn’t helped that the night before, Duncan and I had been watching old episodes of James Burke’s Connections (1978!), about just that: technology traps and how we don’t realize we’re trapped until something goes wrong.
I made it to the daycare, collected Owen, and got him to swimming (just 3 minutes late). The thing is, I felt kind of triumphant, as though getting trapped inside a train (and then escaping) made me feel like I’d accomplished something important. I think I might need more excitement in my life.
Since then, though, I’ve been mulling over this “inconvenience button” idea. I think we need such things. Not everything is an emergency – and what is an emergency? Does someone have to be trapped in the doors or having a heart attack? For the little things: the students who don’t read instructions, the toddlers who spill their pee on the floor beside the toilet, fender benders, flat tires, broken strollers, lost gloves, missed deadlines and opportunities, I wish there could be an inconvenience button. Not even a stop-rewind button, so we could pause and back up and correct the mistake, but just to acknowledge that this is a moment where something went wrong – to mark it somehow.
It wouldn’t fix anything, of course, but sometimes all you want is for someone to notice. To make eye contact. To acknowledge that you’ve had a bad time.
Before everything goes back to normal.