Symbols that speak, words that symbolize

Those of you who have been following my articles know that usually, to get to school, I ride the bus – correction, buses. But one day last week, I felt courageous enough to ride the steel serpent that makes its home within the bowels of New York City. I boarded the subway in the Bronx and took a seat across from a benign looking young man who, like myself, was reading a book. As the train made its way underground, more and more people boarded and soon, I could no longer see across from me.

Once in Manhattan, the passengers, for the most part, cleared out and, as I looked up from my copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I witnessed something shocking. The young man, once seemingly harmless, had taken out a pen and was scribbling a sign I was all too familiar with on the back of his seat – a swatstika.

He seemed bored, filled with an unexplained energy – perhaps a victim of the Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) which plagues so many people, young and old. But, would even that be an excuse to nonchalantly draw a swastika in a public place? A place where many New Yorkers, some of them Jewish, would sit and try to bear their commute?

I took another look at the young man. He was neither pale, nor blonde. He was a young man much like any other, lost in a sea of multitudes on a No. 6 train. He sported a backpack and seemed on his way to high school. His hair was dark, his countenance swarthy; he could have been Hispanic, Mediterranean, Greek. In truth, his lineage may have been from anywhere at all. He was certainly young, and even more certainly ignorant of what the symbol he was so easily etching into his seat represented. Its meaning was lost on him, the horror that spread across Europe, across the very country where I was born, unknown to him – or at least I hoped so. I could not imagine anyone knowingly propagating something that had destroyed so many lives so foolishly.

At this point, the young man saw me and studied me for a moment as I had just studied him. He must have noticed the amazed look on my face, must have seen that his action had left me awed. He may have sensed that the very scraping sound his pen made as it left its hideous mark assaulted my ears. Obviously it had been his goal – not to antagonize me, for I had never seen him before, but to garner attention in any way he could. He smiled and, although I expected an evil grin, what crossed his lips was shy, almost friendly, and very naïve.

Two stations later, he lifted his backpack to his shoulders and exited the train with what I thought may have been a half-hearted wave to me. Still flustered, I looked around to see if anyone else had caught the exchange, or if anyone had noticed what he had done. Again humanity threw me a curveball. Not only had the incident gone completely unnoticed, but someone quickly sat down in the very seat that had just been defiled. Life went on in this great city of ours without much of a fuss. Just another kid being a kid.

For me, what made this incident a travesty was not necessarily what the kid had done. Kids do things. Dumb things. I did and, I am sure, many of you reading this can remember with a smirk some small thing you did while still young and relatively ignorant. No, what set this apart was the lack of caring that I saw on the part of my fellow New Yorkers. They collectively shrugged while I was speechless.

This, in essence, is the real problem.

Have we, as a society, become so uncaring? Are we so far removed (less than a century) from World War II that we cannot remember how many people died, and how many did so willingly in the fight to eradicate that symbol from the very face of the earth? Are history teachers not passing along the message that we – not just America, but the entire world – once stood united against an evil that threatened to enshroud the planet?

I wonder how quickly society forgets the all-too recent past. While walking down the street, I hear young black men greeting each other with the term “n—r”, and am just as appalled.

Again I think of the great men and women only generations removed from these same young people, who fought every day of their lives so that offensive and racist terminology could cease to exist within the confines of our vocabulary. And here it is, alive and well – and used by their children and grandchildren, no less!

Of course, it is difficult to find where and with whom the fault lies. Parents, educators and those most held in high esteem by today’s youth would be a good place to start, I suppose. But truly, my assumption is that we each begin with ourselves. If we hold ourselves accountable, than perhaps our progeny and that of our friends and colleagues will be just a little more conscientious of what they do, and what they say. Even symbols, scribbled in relative silence, speak volumes.