By Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
She sits across from me on the train, the exhaustion of her body mimicked in the tattered fibers of her clothing. It is 9:17 p.m.; I am on my way home from work and my ankles throb after eight hours of standing. Sagging over her slight shoulders, engulfing her beanpole wrists, her black jacket is three sizes too big, maybe an older brother’s, the elastic cuffs frayed at the ends, in parallel with her raspy brown hair that is no longer in a pony tail. Nearly empty, the subway car’s orange sherbet seats, bright lights, advertisements for foot surgeons, and new kinds of beer are all too familiar. Distracted by nothing, I stare, saddened to the core by this young girl and everything she represents.
Alone, she sits on the other side of the aisle. No more than ten, she is with no one, on her own. In rhythm with the speeding train, her legs rock back and forth, too short to reach the floor, perfectly childish. She sits forward to allow the backs of her knees to sit perfectly on the edge of the seat. She is a little kid.
After two stops, she reaches into her bag – an oversized, blue shopping bag - with her left hand and pulls out a sandwich wrapped in aluminum foil. Peeling away layers of foil and wax paper, she finally gets to her dinner: a bacon and egg sandwich on a white roll. Parts of the bacon are too crispy so she cracks them off and throws them on the floor to join the foil. Furthering the perfect image of a child, her feet now hang above scraps of food, the same as a toddler who sits in a booster seat above the Cheerios they’ve thrown all over. This is her dinner. For dessert, she eats a donut from Dunkin Donuts. This is her meal.
Instead of a booster seat, a mother and father sitting with her for dinner, a family member with her on the train, a schoolbag, she continues her journey alone. She looks comfortable, as if she has done this many times before. But, in spite of her hardened shell and the independence defaulted upon her, she is still just a child with a playful curiosity in her eye. She starts to play with her food, the aluminum foil of her dinner becomes her distraction for the few remaining stops.
With great attention to detail, she tears one piece into a rectangle and folds it in half two times. Playing dress up, imitating, emulating, the role models from T.V., her block, movies, music, magazines, she puts the foil in her mouth, suctions it around her top teeth, and smiles into the window to admire her new grill. Stretching her neck to see her reflection, she laughs out loud in delight, pleased, smiling with joy at the altered reality she dressed-up her way into. Thrilled, her eyes sparkle, someone all of a sudden.
Three seconds later, as quickly as it comes, it goes, her amusement stops. With no one to acknowledge her or play along, to believe, to pretend, defeat sets in and, with a face of dejection she removes her grill and throws it on the floor. Her dreams, like the drool on the side of her mouth, wiped off and thrown away.
The doors open at her stop. She hops off her chair, grabs the huge blue shopping bag, and gets off the train in one of the most crime-ridden areas of the Bronx. Below her seat sit bits of crispy bacon, stale bread, and her dreams. Still alone, she climbs the stairs.
I worry about the state of our children. I miss my friend Eve, I mourn for her future (Gabriela’s beautiful phrasing), think of her family, miss our friendship, her laughter, smarts, concern for people. I just miss her. Her death and the violent way she left the world is on my mind all the time and affects me all the time in complicated ways I am not fully able to understand or articulate. Yet, one of the questions I come back to again and again is this: What are we doing to our young people? As I ride my bike through the streets and pages of case studies, crime statistics, and Op-Ed columns, I am saddened by the state of childhood, by how we have failed a generation of young people. It hurts me to know that 10-year-old children do not believe in their dreams -- dreams not just deferred, but dreams they never believed to begin with.