Monday, August 30, 2010

The Need for Tinker Bell: Riding the 90/92 bus to Target in Columbia Heights

The little girl strode confidently onto the bus as we pulled away from 14th St, heading North towards Columbia Rd. Her mother, smiling faintly at me and revealing several gold-plated teeth, sat down in a chair in the middle of the bus. The girl, who must have been about six years old, sat down next to me.

She didn't say much - even to my ├╝ber-friendly, "Hi there!" (Who did I think I was? The Mary Poppins or Nanny McPhee of the Metrobus?). Her legs stuck out in front of her like little freshly baked mini-baguettes. She leaned over the silver rail towards her mother, who reached over and touched the girl's hand. The girl, whose hair was clipped into two pigtails and secured with blue and pink fuzzy scrunchies, seemed to gather enough courage from her mother's hand to face me.

"What's your name?" was her first question. I laughed. I couldn't help it: there's something in children everywhere that wants to skip the preamble and go straight to the punch. "What's your name?" is like asking, "Who are you? Are you just a 20 year old girl who happens to be sitting next to me for this one ride? Are you saying hi because you want to know me? Do you want to know me?"

"I'm Hilary," I said, and smiled warmly again. I glanced up at the mom, who suddenly seemed very tired. Her face was beginning to wrinkle around her eyes and sag into pools below her lower lashes. She was wearing a lavender-colored shirt and faded jeans, and I realized that she wasn't just a person on the metrobus: she was this girl's mother, the one to read stories, cook macaroni and cheese for dinner, walk to school and home again. This woman was the hero of our bus ride.

Soon the girl (who I found out was named Maria) and I were chatting about her pretty blue backpack. Maria loved fairies, and traced the"Tinker Bell" emblazoned on the front over and over with her pudgy fingers. We talked about Peter Pan, how Tinker Bell was his helper, and the fact that Maria and her mother were going to buy a few things at the store before going home for the night.

Our stop neared and I realized that I was going to have to say goodbye to the first person I felt connected to in this city: this wide-eyed, fairy-loving, Hispanic girl who couldn't have been older than some of the kids I babysit for at home. I swung my bag around and stood up. I looked at Maria and said, "It was so great to meet you! Have fun with your mom tonight!" As I exited the bus, and the exhaust hissed to signal its departure, I thought about Maria and her mother. I have next to nothing in common with them, but between my knowledge of Tinker Bell and Peter Pan, and her ability to look at me and see, not a stranger, but a person, a Hilary - I found my first friend on the Washington, DC 90/92 bus.

We are heading into a two-week course on Leadership & Vocation - and part of the course involves service learning in the city. I think of Val Buchanan, the Director of the Office of Community Engagement, who would probably tell me to hold off on my skepticism about the course (and I admit, I'm a bit skeptical) and realize that, if nothing else, service learning is the opportunity to be humbled by the people I meet. Humbled by the stories I so clearly do not yet know; but also welcomed, and taught, and ministered to. And after meeting Maria on the bus this afternoon, I am thoroughly convinced that Val would be right (if she were speaking this to me right now).

Have a wonderful night.


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