Things fall apart. The next generation is organising itself to put them back together again, for the good of one another and for the good of all.
The schoolboy holds his two front teeth in his bloodied hands.
Oddly calm. Perhaps shock has yet to set in? He says to his schoolmates, to the whole train: “He just knocked my teeth out. I never even said anything to him.”
The hulking, bearded, agitated adult who struck him (and who dwarfs the schoolboy) is striding down the carriage, screaming at the train guard that he was acting in self-defence: “He said he was going to follow me off the train at the next stop and fuck me up!”
Lost in the podcast playing through my headphones, I’d been entirely unaware of the violence that had just erupted 10 feet behind me. The schoolkids that hop on my train home are always noisy, always bursting with playful, good-natured life for the 10 minutes that my commute overlaps with theirs. I usually let my headphones cancel out their noise while I try to unwind from the working day. But this day, the shock of seeing the schoolboy who’d been attacked walking past me down the aisle, teeth in hand, blood dripping from his mouth, snapped me abruptly out of my bubble.
By the time I became aware of the violent assault, its aftermath was playing out. Violence is deplorable to me. Violence always chills me to the bone. Yet the way that the schoolchildren and the train guard reacted to this horrific incident was inspirational.
Crowds are not always known for their wisdom. But this crowd of schoolchildren showed an innate wisdom in how they dealt with this situation. The children immediately and intuitively organised themselves to respond to the danger in their midst. They had no need for any leader to direct them. They closed ranks and shouted at the aggressor who had punched their school friend. All of them took out their mobile phones and started filming the violent adult, amassing evidence of what had happened. At the same time, they moved the smallest girls down the carriage where they would be safe.
The guard rose to the occasion and shut down the attacker. As soon as he realised what was unfolding at the far end of the carriage, the guard forcefully shouted at the adult, to break up the confrontation between him and the schoolchildren. He called ahead for police to meet that train at the next station, then used the train’s loudspeakers to ask if any police officers happened to be on board. The guard was a hero.
The schoolchildren were heroes. I am writing this with a tear in my eye as I recall how inspiring I found their reaction to this appalling circumstance. They seemed instinctively to know how to deal with this aggressive, bullying grown-up. Once the train had moved on from the next station (where police officers were on scene to apprehend the attacker), I texted my wife about what had just happened. I told her how the children had self-organised. She said:
“Kids are hardcore these days, bless ’em. They’re children of terrorism years, remember.”
The centre cannot hold
These events happened on my journey home from work on Monday 3 June 2019. This was also the day that President Trump landed in the UK for his state visit (his second coming to the UK, since becoming President). Some might describe Mr Trump as an aggressive, bullying grown-up.
A few minutes before the violent incident above took place, I had reacted to a poetic tweet on Trump’s arrival from my friend Emma Dixon. Emma’s tweet ran thus:
“Trumpcopters over the Heath seem to blot out the sun.
Birds fly up, screeching in alarm.
The centre cannot hold.
It feels like the end of days.#TrumpUKVisit”
I complimented Emma on her fine turn of poetic phrase, in turn exposing my own ignorance of poetry. Emma gently let me know that she had borrowed a few of her words from another poet, namely WB Yeats. She also tweeted me the full poem in question, Yeats’ The Second Coming.*
Things fall apart
Emma is entirely right that this is a wonderful poem, and that it is all too apt for today’s world. “Mere anarchy” runs rampant, while “the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” Things fall apart.
Yet I am optimistic. Those inspirational schoolchildren I saw working together to help one another on that train are tomorrow’s adults.
The way those children self-organised (and how they used their mobile devices in so doing) reminded me of the current wave of school strikes in protest at climate change. Rakeem Hyatt recently profiled a group of schoolchildren involved in these protests for the Birmingham Mail. Hyatt says:
“Speaking to the teens, it was apparent just how egalitarian ‘leadership’ in the collective is. They are overseen and assisted by the larger network called the UK Student Climate Network, which aims to assist youth led campaigns with administration and guidance. However, uniquely they do not choose to have a leader amongst themselves, but rather take turns in effort to galvanise. They are all co-organisers.”
Things fall apart. The next generation is organising itself right now to try to put them back together again. Aggressive, bullying grown-ups will not deter them. They will do what needs to be done, for the good of one another and for the good of all. These children will prevail.
My wife told her best friend about the events I’d witnessed, and about how impressed I was at how the children reacted and self-organised. She replied:
“Generation Z are amazing! They’d fight the sun for each other.”
* The serendipity here is uncanny. The podcast I was listening to when the violent events described in this post occurred was the recent Broken Record episode in which Malcolm Gladwell and Rick Rubin interview Questlove of The Roots. The most famous album by The Roots shares its title with a line from Yeats’ The Second Coming (via Chinua Achebe): Things Fall Apart.