My son and I sat in the car waiting for my wife and daughter to come back out of the grocery store. He was tired after a day floating down the Cowichan River on an inner tube and he slouched in the back seat ready to go back to our hotel room.
A dented Mazda pulled into the open parking spot next to ours and an older woman got out of the driver’s seat clutching a canvas shopping bag. Vanishing into the store, she left behind an argument between two twenty somethings in the car.
We heard them through the closed windows, voices rising, language blue. A minute later a tattooed man in a Chicago Bulls basketball jersey shot out of the back seat, pointing and swearing at the young woman in the cab. Turning away from the Mazda and spotting my son, he softened his scowl and apologized for the language he’d used.
Then, pulling his fingers through his hair, the man walked circles around the parking lot, pausing after a minute or two to talk with a thirty year old man on a BMX bike. They spoke for a bit, gesticulating and nodding, before the man scribbled something on a slip of paper and walked back toward his car.
The woman emerged and they began shouting at each other again. Words flew together, overlapping like an Altman film. Finally, she crossed her arms over her chest and shouted: “I’m not paying for someone else’s meth habit.”
Silence filled the parking lot.
She ducked back into the front seat.
The man blinked.
I thought, someone else’s meth habit?
The older woman came out of the store and the man caught her before she opened the trunk. “If she wants me to move out,” he said to her, exasperated, “I can just go to Surrey and live with my mom.” His face reddened. “This isn’t less abusive than that.”
She nodded once in his direction and put her bag into the trunk. Then, together, they got back into the car and drove away.
Even in paradise life isn’t simple.
The man in the jersey apologized for his language in front of my son. The older woman didn’t engage, argue, or seem to judge. The woman in the car made a perfectly legitimate assertion, even as her phrasing haunted me for the rest of the trip.
I get asked sometimes about whether a school I know is “good” or not, meaning safe, I suppose, or academic, or open minded. I want to answer that schools are reflections of our communities. Schools are places of teaching and learning, struggle and triumph, loss, grief, love, and success. They are populated by students from all walks of life, the same students who make up our neighborhoods, towns, and cities, and whose lives are often more complicated than their yearbook photos would suggest.
As educators we do well when we remember that the world we share with students is only one part of a much greater equation. The two young people in that car looked as though they could have been in high school a year or two ago. Their argument wasn’t unusual, or particularly profound. But it was real. And it left me thinking about my own work with students and families, thinking about empathy, support, kindness.
…and someone else’s meth habit.