Kirsten Wisniewski is a Milwaukee native who has working in language and skills education in the US and Europe for the past 5 years. She is perpetually confused for someone much younger, often being mistaken for a student herself. Wisniewski is back to living stateside, but thinks frequently about the young people who have made an impact on her over the years, including one she met on a train:
I’ve spent much of the past several years living and working abroad, and last year at this time I was in Wales. Mother’s Day in the UK is celebrated far earlier than it is here, though I still felt like a bad daughter spending American Mother’s Day weekend in Cardiff with friends.
I was taking the train back to my Welsh home that Sunday. The cars were a hellscape of no seats. In the horrible bathroom area at the end of the wagon there were several fold-down spots. I sat in one. The next one was occupied by a very young woman wearing false eyelashes. One of them was starting to peel up in the inner corner, but they were applied far better than I ever hope to be able to.
As soon as the train started moving she turned to me to ask if the next stop was Newport. I said that I think that it is. She says she just got on the train that a station employee told her was right, but that she had no idea. She tells me normally she is very nervous to ask people questions. She can’t even ask for change in a shop. She asks where I am getting off. I tell her Abergavenny. She is shocked by this, since Cardiff and Abergavenny are a 50 minute train ride away, and asks why I was in Cardiff. I tell her I was visiting friends. She tells me I’m a very good friend for traveling so far. She asks where I’m from originally. I tell her the US.
She. Is. Floored.
I ask her what she was doing in Cardiff. She tells me that she lives there. She’s going to Newport for the afternoon since she just had to get out of Cardiff. She rapidly pours her heart out, telling me about the breakup she’s going though, the boy in question truly sounding awful. She tells me that even though they fought a lot, she loved him, saying it with the earnest confidence that is unique to teenagers.
She tells me that he cheated on her. She took him back. He did it again. I tell her that I think she can do better.
She tells me that he threatens to kill himself when they fight, knowing full well that she had lost her mother to suicide only two months before.
She doesn’t cry when she says this, but this will be the only time in our conversation where her voice wavers.
I tell her that I know she can do better.
She asks if I’ve ever had a boyfriend. I tell her that I’ve had several. That I’m actually older than she probably thinks, even though I have the face of a child.
She asks me how old I am, saying she figured we were around the same age. I tell her 27. She tells me she’s 15. She seems to feel bad for thinking I was kid.
But I tell her that when I was teaching Austrians her age some of them thought I was a foreign exchange student. She laughs, then asks me why I like Wales better than America. I say that I don’t always. She says, “but, you do,” then the whirlwind of a conversation continues.
She asks whether I have a family. She asks if I flew here on my own. If I moved to Austria on my own. Whether it was hot in the US.
As I respond to her questions she plays with the light blue ball of a tongue ring.
She tells me that she would love having me as a teacher.
She tells me that I’m brave.
The details of her life keep tumbling out as our journey continues. She tells me about the friends she’s visiting. She’ll have to walk three miles from the station in Newport to her friend’s house. She describes herself as “not much of a walker.” She tells me that she hates running most of all. She ran a 5K recently as a charity fundraiser and it was the worst day of her life. She says that it was for a children’s hospital, and the only way she got through it was by thinking about her baby brother who died when she was nine. It was easier to run if you were doing if for someone.
She says maybe she’ll get a bus in Newport. She’s a pound short, but maybe she’ll ask someone for change. But she can also walk. I am the audience to a stream of thoughts delivered in the non-self conscious way that teen girls normally reserve for close friends.
I offer her a pound. She tries to refuse to take it, saying I didn’t have to do that. I say that I know, that she didn’t ask, that I’m giving it to her since I want to.
I don’t say that I want to give her the pound because every 15 year old girl going through a hard time deserves even the littlest of breaks. That I hope that when I was 15, had I been having a rough time, someone would have tried to look out for me, even just a little bit. That if I ever have a daughter, that someone kind on the train would chip in for her bus fare if she was alone and going through a lot.
I don’t say that I want to give her the pound because she’s so so young and seems so mixed up. She’s sweet and earnest. She reminds me of other motherless girls her age I have taught over the years. Without fail they have been strong young women, asked by the world to deal with the very adult experience of the loss of a parent far too early. They are girls who have inspired me with their ability to cope and thrive, both becoming more independent and caring profoundly for those around them. But they are also girls I have wanted so badly to protect. As an adult woman in their lives I have wanted to build a defense around them, shield them from a brutal reality that I have no power to keep out. They are not fragile they haven’t needed protecting, but nonetheless I want to keep them safe. I am so proud of these girls who, in some ways are stronger and braver than I am, but I also hate that they have had to be.
I don’t tell her that back home it is Mother’s Day.
The train pulls into the station at Newport.
I give her a pound.
I wish her luck, and she gets off the train.