Like many adjunct professors, Jessamine Irwin spends a lot of time commuting. The other day she way on her way to New York University after teaching a class at Fordham. She got on a New York subway and sat in a seat at the back of the train, near the door leading to the next car. She settled into the commuter’s lull, relaxed and half awake, when she was startled into awareness by a loud noise against the back door of the train car.
She was shocked to see two people between the cars. One, a large man, was shaking the other, as if trying to throw that person onto the tracks.
Horrified, she called out to her fellow passengers, “What’s happening!”
No one seemed to react. At the same time, the aggressor shoved his victim to the other side, and then slammed him with his back to the door of Ms. Irwin’s car.
Almost without thinking, she opened the door and grabbed the victim.
He half fell as she pulled him to safety, away from an aggressor she describes as muscular and over six feet tall. The aggressor, thankfully, did not pursue his victim into the car although that was the risk Ms. Irwin took.
Only after she got the victim into the car did she realize he was an 11-year-old boy.
His t-shirt revealed the name of his school but he was so traumatized by his ordeal that he could barely talk. She used his phone, trying to call his mother, but lost reception.
His arms were bruised from the assault and he’d hit his head against the subway car. He held her hand as, at the next stop, she led him off the train to the transit police. He explained to the police that he’d been play-fighting with a friend and his friend accidentally bumped into the man. When the boy denied witnessing this, the man grabbed him and dragged him between the cars.
Some say there’s a difference between those who ignore suffering and those who are moved to alleviate it. We know too little about how to develop that capacity in ourselves and our children. Instead we’re surrounded by news outlets, pundits, and advertisers who spew greed and misery, giving us all a sense of helplessness.
The issues of our time are serious indeed. But unnoticed acts of kindness are what allow life to flourish as we nurture the youngest and tend to the oldest, share with those in need, and weave the web of mutuality that holds us together. Most of these acts are not as dramatic as Ms. Irwin’s. But she, like so many perfectly ordinary people, show us what humanity is capable of doing.
If faced with a similar crisis, I’d like to think that you and I would open the door too.