11 April 2012

Diversity has been written into the DNA of 
American life; any institution that lacks a 
rainbow array has come to seem diminished, if 
not diseased.
   - Joe Klein

Last Sunday, I finally got a look at a recent photograph of Trayvon Martin, the young man who was killed as the result of his encounter with George Zimmerman, a "neighborhood watch" volunteer. The facts surrounding Martin's death and what provoked it are in the hands of the court system now, and I don't want to speculate on the case.

I want to stay focused on the face in the photograph, and my reaction to it.

I see intelligence in Martin's eyes, and the curious mismatch of a nose that is somehow at odds with the boyishness of the rest of his face -- as if he still had some growing into it to do. His is the face at the launching point of manhood. His mouth is upturned at its corners, the hint of a sly little grin as he peers into the lens, a laugh being teased out of him despite his desire to appear serious. 

He looks like every seventeen year old youth I've ever met in my life, and I have met quite a few. Young men in every color, size, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, degree of smarts, athleticism, or anything else you might imagine. What he doesn't look like to me is a person to fear, even though he's wearing a hooded sweatshirt. He looks like a nice kid, trying to be cool, trying to fit in with his friends.

In December, I had a reason to travel to the midwest. I made the trip by rail, an experience I haven't had in a long time. On my trip home to Massachusetts, I had a five-hour layover in Chicago's Union Station. The trains are gaining ground that the airlines have lost, and the place was packed. I checked my bags through to Boston, then went to the waiting area, where I found a seat. I carry Sudoku books with me when I have to wait places -- for me, there is something calming, almost meditative, in the act of finding the correct spaces for the nine sets of nine numbers. I opened my book, took up my pen, and settled into my task.

I'd been at it for a while, going through several pages, when the person sitting to my right spoke to me. "How do you play that game? How do you know where to put the numbers?"

I looked up. The stranger was a whip-thin youth in jeans, sneakers and, yes, a hoodie. He was staring at my half-finished puzzle. He half-smiled as he told me he'd seen people solve Sudoku puzzles before, and always wondered how they were doing it. He seemed genuinely interested, so I asked, "Would you like to do one with me? If you have time, I can explain as we go."

He gave me a broad smile, and with only the briefest of introductions, we set to work at solving simple puzzles. Time flew, he learned a new game, and we had fun together. When we parted, I reached in my bag and fished out another Sudoku book I packed-- half-finished, because I always leave the easy ones for last. I offered it to him, saying, "Here, take this. You can practice on the train."

He thanked me, then joined the queue to board his train. As he exited the waiting area, he turned back, smiled and waved goodbye. My heart lifted a little. I was still smiling as the handsome boy vanished from view. A woman always appreciates being appreciated.

In the time we'd shared, I hadn't paid any attention to our surroundings. Now, however, I realized I was a person of interest to several people in the waiting area. People were staring frankly, many with an expression of mild amusement. I met a gaze or two, nodded, then returned to my puzzles until my train's departure was called. When I reached home, I told my beloved about my chance encounter, and how much fun I'd had teaching the teen. I filed this away in my memory banks, and didn't think about it until I saw the photo of Trayvon Martin.

I went back over my afternoon in Chicago -- a more than middle-aged, well-dressed white woman with snowy hair and a tall black youth in a hoodie, hunched together over our common task, talking, laughing, having a good time, even though we'd just met -- truly, strangers on a train. The time was pleasant because we found a way to share the experience and ourselves. I don't know where my young friend was headed that day, but I hope it wasn't to a darkened street where bigotry, racism or fear could lay him in his grave for the price of an iced tea and a box of candy.

Excuse me. I have to go buy some more easy puzzle books to keep on hand. I never know who I'll meet on the road.


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