Thursday, February 15, 2018

on this bus

Deb N. read The 57 Bus, "a true story of two teenagers and the crime that changed their lives," by Dashka Slater. I was curious and decided to pick it up from the library. It's 305 brief pages and reads fast.

The incident occurred in 2013 in Oakland. Two students from different high schools are on a city bus. Sasha, white, a senior, identifies as agender (preferring the pronoun "they"), likes to wear both neckties and skirts, is dozing in the back of the bus. Richard, black, a junior, has been in trouble but is identified by himself and others as mostly a good kid, is fooling around with some friends, flicks a lighter and touches it to Sasha's skirt.

It's flammable, and ignites. Sasha is seriously burned, but eventually recovers. Richard is arrested the next day and charged as an adult.

You'd think the book would mostly cover the aftermath, and it does, but the author is just as concerned with portraying both characters and the contexts of the lives they led before the incident. It's very interesting, but my own takeaway focuses on two other things:

1. Why did Richard do it? The first assumption of many observers is that it's some sort of homophobic hate crime and the police interview tends to confirm that; but Richard insists he intended no serious harm and just thought it would be funny for someone to wake up and find their clothes smoldering, which is what he thought would happen.

We can discuss whether playing with fire is an appropriate occupation for 16-year-olds, a conversation this book evades, but the point is that it'd be a different conversation than one about homophobia or "hate crimes."

2. The story offers a continuing lesson that agendered pronouns present a different and more complex socio-linguistic challenge than pronouns for binary transsexuality do. Sasha had made an announcement at school: "It's important to respect people's preferred pronouns and if you're not sure what those are, you should ask."

Fine, but there's no time to ask a stranger about preferred pronouns when you're trying to put out their clothes that are on fire. In the description of this scene, which is evidently transcribed from the bus's security camera video, everyone refers to Sasha as "he," which - the author has eventually gotten around to telling us - is what Sasha was born as and evidently still looks like. (And which is a given if Richard is to be charged with homophobia over the skirt.) Even Sasha's parents, who know the preferred pronoun, keep getting it wrong, and not just under stress. These are very deep waters we're getting into, much deeper than we've experienced with previous linguistic adjustments.

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