I was riding the subway home to Brooklyn and noticed a girl, maybe six or seven, sitting beside me, and what I assumed to be her mother, in her late thirties.

My first impression was that both were poor. They just looked poor, to me, not so much by dress—though they were plainly dressed—but by their straggly hair and, somehow, by their hands. I had never thought of poor hands before, but this girl and her mother had poor hands. The daughter read word-by-word with her fingers.

Poor white hands with blue veins and nails cut to the quick. They resembled the kind of distraught people Dorthea Lange photographed in the 1930s. Proud, hungry people with a difficult present and uncertain future.

On the girl’s lap was an open ring binder missing the rings. The girl was scribbling with a golf pencil on various simple drill forms—such as supply the missing word—at an elementary level, as rapidly as her mother presented them to her. The mother pointed with her poor finger at the daughter’s scribbled answer—I couldn’t read a word of any of it—and quickly erased the wrong response with an overworked nub of an eraser, as if each sheet of paper was precious and had to be preserved.

The mother presented each of a dozen forms in hand to her daughter, quickly instructed her as to the type of response needed, reached and erased wrong responses, and so on with the next form, shuffling these papers in hand, giving the impression that she was trying to teach her daughter in as many different academic subjects as quickly possible while riding on the train.

Part of the lessons involved what looked like a worn library book about chameleons, with color illustrations of the reptiles. The mother turned the pages, pointed out different examples of the species.

Occasionally the girls objected, saying this was stupid. The mother paused, recalculated her line of attack, and continued with the lesson in a hushed voice. I have watched many mother-daughter drills on public transportation in my time in New York. This was the most urgent and frantic procedure I have seen, as if by the end of their ride, the girl would learn enough to pass an important test, or series of tests, that would advance her a grade and so out of poverty.

These frantic lessons by the mother attracted the attention of nearby subway riders, who cast a wary eye the mother’s way. The mother never shouted at the child or hit or criticized her. She clearly loved her daughter and wanted to help her in her studies in the worst sort of way.

I felt uncomfortable, sad. I wanted to do something, say something, help in some way. My stop came and I exited the train.

Later, on the bus from the train, I realized what I should have done, or imagined I should have done. I should have furtively taken out my wallet—which I never do in the subway—taken out a $20 bill, stood and addressed the mother saying, “I hope I’m not intruding, but I couldn’t help noticing that your daughter might need a new pencil or notebook and, this being the holiday season, I thought I’d help out. Please accept my donation. After all, it’s the holiday season.”

What would the mother have done? Would she have accepted, snapped back at me that it was none of my business? Neither one looked at me or paid me any attention during our brief encounter. I can only hope that others will do what I was unable to accomplish during this holiday season.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.