“Step back,” I said in my deepest, alpha-male voice to the three teenagers at the bus stop, “and let her on first.”
The middle-aged woman with the plastic bags full of colorful vegetables and cleaning products boarded the bus without acknowledging my gallant chivalry.
“I’m really sorry,” one of the teens said sincerely while lowering his eyes. “I didn’t mean it. I wasn’t focusing,” he said, more to himself than to me.
My wife was standing behind me. She placed a hand on my shoulder and whispered in my ear “Baby. Take it easy. He may have a special need.”
My immediate reaction was adamant disbelief, to admonish her for judging this rowdy kid as having any kind of mental disability, for excusing his impoliteness as a result of a lack of awareness of social cues and norms. However, to my deepening embarrassment, I realized that she was right. I boarded the bus quietly and took a seat by the window.
My wife has a professional background in Early Childhood Education and has spent her career (both in the classroom as a teacher and outside of it as a member of the administrative team) working closely with special needs students of all ages. What I had initially viewed as an incorrect snap judgment influenced by her “maternal instincts” was more a quick analysis she had sharpened through years of experience.
For the remainder of the bus ride, I watched the young teenager and his friends. They continued their previous conversation in nervous whispers, suddenly very aware of their surroundings and of the belligerent man who had corrected their behavior. I pictured their lives populated with others just like me: adults in positions of actual and presumed authority, people who lost their patience with them, who could not understand what the world looked like through their eyes.
Admittedly, all of this was supposition; other than my wife’s comment, I had no evidence as to whether any type of disability even existed nor (if it did) the extent to which it affected their lives. Perhaps they were the rowdy, disrespectful, annoying teenagers I automatically judged them to be. Better yet, maybe they were rowdy and disrespectful teenagers who also happened to have special needs. Based on their behavior for the remainder of the bus ride, however, I knew I was wrong.
“I wasn’t focusing.” That phrase rolled off his tongue with the familiar ease of an apology that is repeated often. It swam through my subconscious and came back transformed, metastasized by my deepest insecurities. The voice was no longer his; the voice was my own. And it was gruffly saying “You need to learn how to focus!” to my 5 year-old son as he tried to do his homework.
A light drizzle had started to streak the bus window panes and distorted my reflection. There he was, the man who loved the sound of his own voice, who wanted to show his wife that he wasn’t afraid of some stupid teens, who was in such a hurry to be a hero he ended up being an ass instead. Sometimes, the most important lessons to be learned about parenthood will happen when you are away from your children, when the physical distance creates the empty space required for self-reflection. Patience was a virtue that I could have sworn I had already mastered. That moment at the bus stop taught me otherwise.