I saw 'em do it. I did. But what to do about it?
I was driving through Garner yesterday and noticed three young men, walking along the sidewalk. I had enough time to decide they were old enough to be in high school but not old enough to drive and to guess they had probably been playing basketball or soccer (shirts off, all sweaty), when the middle one did it. He tossed an empty soda bottle into the woods next to the sidewalk.
I was a little stunned, as I usually am when I see somebody do something particularly stupid. What was this kid thinking? Or not thinking? Has he no sense of responsibility, of civic pride?
I thought about circling around and being part of the village it takes to raise a child. I had room, I had time. But I didn't have the words.
It's one thing to report littering on the highway. When a plastic bag flies out of the back of a truck hauling trash and wraps itself around your right side mirror, and you can see at least part of the vehicle's license plate, you have something to tell the Highway Patrol. They have the language and authority of the law to communicate the point.
And when one is only steps away from a person and she, say, rips the cellophane off her pack of cigarettes and tosses it on the ground, one can politely pick it up and say, "Excuse me, you dropped this."
I have done both.
But this situation flummoxed me.
There were lots of things I could say. I could yell at them, "Hey, don't be a jerk. Pick up your trash." Except I don't respond too well when strangers yell at me, and my goal was for him to change his attitude, not for me to vent my anger.
I could say, in a sweet, non-confrontational, coaxing voice, "Excuse me, but I saw you littering. Please go pick up your trash and dispose of it properly. Thanks, hon."
Except that his bottle was not the first thing to be discarded in those woods, as they were less than a block from a convenience mart. If he thought I was a fool for asking him to retrieve one bottle while ignoring the trash bag's worth of other litter surrounding it, I wouldn't have entirely disagreed with him.
Speaking off the cuff wasn't really an option. I try to be respectful of other people. I try to look at each person and see him or her, not the stereotype indicated by their choice of hat or hairstyle. I try to build rapport, try to point to connections , not differences. Try to be constructive.
This can be a lot for me to manage and I get nervous, so when I open my mouth what comes out is something like, "Hey how are you all don'? Listen, I saw you throw a bottle in the woods back there that's really uncool just 'cause other people did it before you doesn't make it right this is your neighborhood take some pride in it and responsibility for yourself and if its nothing to be proud of well then you can...."
Roll your eyes if you feel you must. I don't blame you. This is why I prefer to write: "quick and to the point" isn't what comes out the first time around.
Still, the question remains: What words could come out of the mouth of an unknown mom in a minivan and make an impression on cool teenage boys in their own world?
I know they care. In a discussion with some young people last year, we talked about what it means to be "from" some where, and about the beauty of a landscape. I asked them what they thought about this place they call home. The first thing mentioned was all the trash on the sides of the roads and that pre-empted any beauty they might have found. There was a vocal contingent that wished they were "from" somewhere else.
So much for instilling civic pride.
I still haven't come up with a constructive but pithy line for those boys.
What would you say?