By Zachary R. Wood (@zacharyrwood), at NYTimes.com, Sept 2018
During my high school career I spent more than 2,000 hours on public transportation. Two hours to and from the elite suburban prep school I attended for three years. Four hours total for each of the 180 days of the school year. And that was only if there was no traffic.
Here was the drill: I’d wake up at 4:50 a.m. in the dilapidated duplex in Ward 8 of Washington that I shared with my father, grandmother, uncle and younger sister.
It was too early for me to be hungry, and our kitchen rarely had much food anyway. So skipping breakfast became a habit. After willing myself out of bed, usually on three to four hours of sleep, I’d take a shower to wake myself up, get dressed and head out to catch the Metrobus at 5:15 a.m.
On good days, the bus ran only a few minutes late. But at least once a week, it wouldn’t arrive at my stop until 6 a.m. On those days, I’d get to school roughly seven minutes before class started.
That was a problem because I didn’t have a printer or high-speed internet, so I couldn’t print out my essays at home the night before they were due. It was important for me to get to campus at least 30 minutes early so that I could use the school’s computer equipment.
The first half of my daily commute took me through the poorest ward of the city. One day I saw a man defecating on the back of the bus. On another, I watched an unhinged passenger slap a pregnant mother because her baby wouldn’t stop crying. One morning the bus came to a sudden halt as gunshots rang out from a nearby alley.
Let’s just say it wasn’t an uneventful ride.
I’m far from the only student who has faced such a commute. According to the American Public Transit Association, over 735,000 students take public transportation to school. Many travel through neighborhoods similar to my own.
For me, the destination made it worthwhile. Bullis School, in Potomac, Md., had a gorgeous 102-acre campus, resources that I could never have imagined and terrific teachers. I managed to attend thanks to considerable financial aid.
Most of my classmates arrived at school in luxury S.U.V.s, Mercedeses and BMWs. Being black and poor made me a minority twice over.
At the time, I was ashamed about riding a bus. But looking back, I’ve come to see that the hours I logged on public transit provided an education of their own.
The first lesson: gratitude.
I will never forget seeing a little girl who could not have been older than 5 get on the bus all alone. Her white T-shirt looked as if it hadn’t been washed in weeks. She paid the fare and took a seat as if she’d done this many times before.
Seeing her snapped my own experience into focus. Who was I to pity myself for being a poor black kid going to a fancy school? Who knows where I would be now if at her age I had to commute alone through some of Washington’s roughest neighborhoods?
The second lesson: resilience.
Every day I saw frail older people struggling to mount the steps into the bus. Every day I saw single mothers with children waiting at the bus stop before dawn to go to work and to take their kids to school. Every winter I saw homeless people desperately race to catch the bus as it pulled away from the stop because a seat inside provided respite from the cold.
Unlike most of my classmates at Bullis, my fellow commuters were not beneficiaries of inherited wealth and social capital. They endured the adversity they faced because they were committed to caring and providing for themselves and their families. Seeing these people every day taught me that succumbing to the exhaustion and distress I often felt wasn’t an option if I wanted to achieve my dreams.
Finally, my commute taught me humility.
I don’t doubt that there were people in my neighborhood who could have done more to help themselves and set a better example for their children. But I also know that there were many young men and women whose attitudes toward life, family and education would have been vastly different if they’d benefited from a small fraction of the opportunities I’d found thanks to an extremely hard-working father and the luck of an excellent education. My experience has taught me that pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is a myth: Achieving social mobility requires far more than will and ability. It’s nearly impossible to rise without other people helping you pull yourself up.
I’ve just graduated from college. As I enter into my freshman year of real life, these are the most important lessons I’m carrying with me.
Zachary R. Wood (@zacharyrwood) is the author of “Uncensored: My Life and the Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America.”