I spent today looking after six nine-year olds on a school trip to the British Museum. Our visit to Room 49 of the Roman collection featured much frenzied searching for particular display case numbers to complete the activity pack we were given (why the cases couldn’t go in numerical order, I don’t know). The highlight of Room 70 was the large amount of nudity. One of the girls in my group felt she really shouldn’t be looking at portrayals of naked men, and two of the boys in my group found it highly entertaining to lead her around while she shielded her eyes, then say, “It’s safe to look here!” They would place her right in front of yet another sculpture of an undressed Roman. When the girl took down her hand, she would recoil in mock terror, the boys would laugh, and the game would start again. When our groups split up, I successfully shepherded my group through the Egyptian mummy room and managed to hide my feelings of panic about finding my way back to the designated meeting place. I used the time-trusted technique of asking a museum attendant for help, with positive results.
When we changed trains at Hammersmith on our way home from the museum, we happened to alight on a section of the platform that was dominated by a billboard with just one word in giant pink letters- “Lesbians”- advertising a new TV programme. This caused all of my group to fall about in hysterics, and caused my sensitive girl to again shield her eyes, smirking.
I was very happy to have reached the penultimate leg of the journey and be standing in the doorway of the homeward-bound District Line tube train. Nearly all of my charges were sitting on proper seats, although two of them were sharing two seats with a third girl, sitting across from a man and a woman. At a station several stops from home, the woman left her seat, and the third girl took the seat next to the man. The man had hair that needed washing and a trenchcoat on the seat next to him. He was wearing a blue pique work polo shirt and a brown New York Yankees cap. I noticed that he seemed to be pleased to be sitting with three nine-year old girls in school summer dresses and felt I should keep an eye on him from my position several feet away. The man made eye contact with another girl from our school who was sitting behind my two girls several times, and grinned at her. He got out a pouch of chewing tobacco and a partially-rolled cigarette at one point and spilled a bit of tobacco on the floor of the train. I cynically wondered if this was a ploy to lean over, but he kept his hands to himself, so I continued to just observe.
To my relief, the man stood up a couple stops before our station and came towards the door.
“They’re always full of beans, aren’t they,” he said, in an unnaturally high voice.
“They are indeed,” I agreed.
“Are you American?”
“I am. Are you?”
“No. Are you from Philadelphia?”
“No, Vermont. It’s a very little state.”
“Oh. But you’ve been here five or six years, right?”
“Yes, that’s right,” I said, surprised. “Good guess.”
“Are you wondering how I knew that? It’s because I’m from the future,” he said, perfectly seriously. It was clear that this was not a line, and he really believed that he was from the future.
“I’m Tony,” he said, and offered me his hand to shake.
I shook it. “I’m Beth.”
“God bless you Beth,” he said, as the train doors opened.
“God bless you as well,” I said, and stepped to the side so he could leave the carriage.
The girls looked at me curiously. I smiled at them. The rest of the trip went smoothly.
When I was in primary school, my dad and stepmom moved from Vermont to Boston. My dad says that the first time my brother, my sister, and I went to visit him in Boston, we walked around in a state of near shock, overwhelmed by the buildings, the traffic, and the hustle and bustle. That sense of disbelief took a long time to dissipate, and wasn’t helped by an incident that occurred on one of our early visits. My stepsister had a friend down from Vermont that weekend, and we all took the T, Boston’s overground trolley line, into the city center for an outing. On our way home, my stepsister and her friend sat a little apart from the rest of us. There was a man close to them, and he flashed them. My stepsister was upset, but my stepsister’s friend was seriously shaken. I remember her crying, and my Boston parents attempting to comfort her. I am thankful that Tony from the future stayed mostly within the boundaries of appropriate behaviour, and the girls in my charge were not subjected to an experience similar to that of my stepsister’s friend.
I remember walking with a friend once when we passed a man on a park bench who was obviously inebriated. He said something to my friend, and she responded. They ended up having a short but pleasant conversation. As we walked away I said to her, “I almost never talk to people like that.”
“I usually do,” she said. “They’re people too.”
“That’s true,” I said, and I have thought of her in situations like that since.
I don’t know if I set a good example by chatting with Tony for my young charges, who are teetering on the brink of adulthood. If I consider what I would want for my own daughter in that situation, on the one hand, I would want to make my daughter aware of certain dangers that regrettably still affect women more often than men, but on the other hand, I would want her to recognize that Tony is a person too. I’m glad I have a few more years before my daughter reaches nine, and I’m grateful for the heads-up that when nine rolls around, I better be a bit more ready than I am now.