A moment of serenity among chaos

A commute home in Washington is usually chaotic. DC becomes a city of honking, angry drivers and jaywalking pedestrians. Buses whiz past stops as jilted would-be passengers run and wave their arms. Train operators leave car doors open just long enough to let people off but not let anybody on, then joyously snap their doors shut, capturing between them wiggling executives caught like rats in a trap, and speed off to leave platforms full of wide-eyed commuters waiting to try their luck with the next one. Train cars reek of body odor and old ladies place their purses in the empty seat next to them rather than share with the exhausted blue collar workers who stand. People snap at each other and name call as they fight to cram into full trains, and then blush when they’re forced to stand pressed against their insulted victim for several stops.

But today something happened. Among the carnage, there was a little light, and we were redeemed.

The train doors opened and a class of school children filed in. They must have been in 2nd or 3rd grade. Their teacher counted them as they came aboard. There were eleven of them. Clearly, they were on their way back from some field trip in the city. They all stood in the aisle clutching rails and seat backs as the train shook, bumped and squealed its way down the tunnel. There was a little Asian American girl. In her hand she held a refrigerator magnet that had on it printed the President’s inaugural oath. She stood there among the mass of people and began to read aloud, projecting her little voice above the din.

“I, Barack Hussein Obama, do sol… sol… solemnly swear”, she paused to sound out many of the words, “exe…cute the office…”.

As the little girl read these words, a hush descended over the full train car as we all watched and listened.

Very slowly, “…and will to the best of my ab…ility, preserve…”, she continued.

Dozens of people were riveted by a little girl reading the oath. So touching was this spectacle of civic education that many of us welled up with tears – one, an African American man in his 20s, exchanged glances with me and we weren’t ashamed that we were moved. Smiles and nods came from others. When she was finished, we all sat in stunned silence, apparently letting soak-in what we’d just witnessed. It was beautiful. A little girl healed the hearts of a trainload of irritable, self-absorbed commuters with her little voice and a refrigerator magnet.

Of course, ten minutes later, we were all individuals again and there was no “we”, but for a minute there, I saw it. A sense of community, summoned by a little girl. She had taken us all back to the last time this city stood so silent, and reverent. And she affected all of us.

Thanks, kid.

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