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I like public transit. I grew up in a car-based world, where the only way to communicate with other travelers was turn signals and flashing high beams, and those were dangerous. [1] I'm one of those people who smiles at strangers and says "good morning." When somebody asks the world at large, "why are we stopping?" or "when is the bus coming?" I answer. Even when that means talking with a child I don't know.

I try to be polite. I listen to many many fascinating conversations without saying anything at all. I don't want to be an intrusive creep. And when I hear an angry person with bad boundaries, I know I shouldn't get involved in their conversation.

Except last Wednesday, when I met Mr. Emphatic.

Wednesday afternoon I settled onto the bus home from Cambridge. I had one of the sideways seats I prefer, and Mr. Emphatic sat down next to me and started telling me how dangerous my phone was. At first I thought he meant kids-these-day-get-off-my-lawn, because people using their phones aren't doing whatever imaginary wholesome things he imagines, but he was talking about the mind control rays coming through the back. He told me I needed to get an insulating cover, to protect myself. See? SHE has an insulating cover on HER phone. (He pointed to the very young and very distracted preschool teacher on his other side. Her phone had a pink plastic cover, but she had no time to discuss how well it protected her brain from being taken over by mind control rays hackers sent up her arm, as she was busy herding a class of 3 year olds onto the bus.[2]) I thanked Mr. Emphatic for his concern and read "Cold Comfort Farm" with my head down. It's an ebook, and I was reading it on my phone with no cover.

Mr. Emphatic turned his attention to one of the little kids sitting across from us. "Is that a tattoo on your arm?" The kid presumably nodded, and he started talking about how tattoos were ugly. And how they got uglier as the woman's body under it got older. Ugly, ugly, ugly. I was trying to think of what to say[3], if I should say anything, when the whole conversation wound down to silence. Peeking out from under the brim of my hat, I couldn't tell if the three children on the opposite seats were feeling hurt or frightened or what. Or if they were ignoring him. Or if they just believed him quietly, without any fuss.

A little while later, he started telling one of the little girls how terrible it was that he could look up her skirt. I don't remember his exact words, but the first thing he said wasn't that awful...if a woman had said it to another grown woman, it could have been useful information, not an attack. (A whisper about a wardrobe malfunction can be a courtesy.) But it feels different when a man is talking to a little girl so emphatically. He didn't just give her the bit of information, for her to use or not. He escalated quickly from "Here is useful information," to "This is a terrible mistake," to "How dare you make this mistake?" The child's legs were short enough to make it difficult to sit modestly on that bench, in that skirt. And as he scolded her about how wrong it was for her to sit with her legs out, she scooted back and drew her knees up to her chin. This, of course, exposed even more of her legs. He kept badgering her, going on about how terrible it was that he could see all the way up.

I finally told him to leave the kid alone. He argued with me. He didn't slink off, ashamed at being called out for bullying a 3-year-old. He argued with me, saying she wasn't listening to him, and it was really important that he teach her to sit properly and keep her legs covered. Somebody a few rows away turned around and told him he shouldn't be looking up a little girl's dress no matter what she was wearing. (I was very relieved to have an ally.) I tried to explain that he was being intrusive and inappropriate. She's just a little kid, you can't talk to her like that. Children are supposed to learn some things from their parents and teachers, not from strangers yelling at them. She'll learn to manage skirts when she's ready, and it wasn't really any of his business. No, being able to see her legs did not make it his business. No, she wasn't my daughter. No, my children weren't on the bus at all [4]. No, I would not appreciate his "help" at all, if he ever saw a daughter of mine with her skirt up like that--I would want him to leave my children alone.

The woman a few rows away was getting angrier, telling him he should just move where he wasn't looking up the skirt of somebody who was practically a baby. The little girl was chewing on the end of her hair solemnly. I couldn't tell if she was listening to us. In between arguing with the other person about it being the child's fault he was looking between her legs, he argued with me about his moral obligation to teach the child to behave modestly. And that I had no right to stop him, especially because the child was not mine, and I was not taking on the responsibility of teaching her to sit modestly.[5] It was horribly uncomfortable. I wanted to interfere. (I WAS interfering. I mean, I wanted to feel confident that it was right for me to interfere.) And yet my whole argument was that he should not be interfering with this child. That a decent person, even a halfway decent person, would stop intruding on this child even if the intrusion was intended to teach her something useful.

I'm glad I said something. The preschool teacher thanked me, after Mr. Emphatic flounced off. I don't know why she didn't say anything to him. Or to the child when he was there. Or even to the child after he left. I'm glad I said something, but I keep thinking I should have handled it better. I should have spoken up sooner. I should have stood up and gotten between them, so he wasn't looking up her dress for the whole argument. I shouldn't have kept telling him, "Don't say that to her because she's just a little kid." I don't want him thinking the bodies of teenage girls are fair game. Worse, I don't want the preschoolers growing up to think that.



1. When I learned to drive, I heard a lot of conflicting information about what it meant to flash high beams. Warning, there's a police car ahead; Warning, there's a moose ahead; You forgot to turn on your headlights; Pull over at the next intersection or my accomplice will kill you; Pull over at the next intersection AND my accomplice will kill you...

2. You've probably seen outings like this. All the kids in bright matching shirts over their clothes, with the name and phone number of the preschool to make it easy to find and return strays.

3. Leave her alone? He wasn't talking directly to any of the kids. People can do what they want with their own bodies--it's not their job to look exactly the way you prefer for their whole lives? Do 3 year olds even understand that? Stop that, you're scaring them? Was he scaring them enough to break the "none of my business" barrier? They looked unsettled, but none of them were crying, and their teacher didn't seem to think they needed rescue.

4. As most of you know, I have no children of my own. This didn't seem the time to say so. Nor to say that if I ever did have a 3-year-old daughter, I would put pants on her.

5. I am not responsible for this child, or no more responsible for her than for anybody (given that we are all of us responsible for each other.) But I don't care whether or not she learns to sit like a proper and modest young lady with her knees together. I care whether or not she learns to be ashamed of her body. I care whether or not she learns her body belongs to her, instead of whoever might like to look at her.
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