Last week, Shena Hardin, a woman in Cleveland, Ohio, was convicted for dangerous driving after she was caught zooming up on to the sidewalk to avoid having to wait behind a school bus that was dropping off small children. Each aspect of this case, at least as it’s been reported on the news, is more astonishing than the last. First, the school bus driver caught the whole thing on video – you can actually see Hardin jump the curb and race along the sidewalk right where the children would get out. Second, Hardin apparently did this routinely – so routinely, the police were able to set up a sting operation to catch her in the act. Third, upon sentencing her, the municipal judge, apparently exasperated with conventional slap-on-the-wrist punishments of a short license suspension and $250 fine, also demanded that Hardin spend two mornings standing on the road wearing a sign on her that read, “Only an idiot drives on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus.”

Less than a week after reading about this case, I found myself in a surreal Harden-esque scenario. Yes, Virginia, these things can happen right on one’s own doorstep.

November 11th was not only Remembrance Day, it was also St. Martin’s Day. In many countries in Europe, St. Martin is honored for his kindness to the poor. According to Wikipedia, “the most famous legend of St. Martin’s life is that he once cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm, to save the beggar from dying of the cold.” Celebrations in his honor share a lot in common with other autumnal festivals: St. Martin’s Day also marks the end of the harvest, Thanksgiving and readiness for the long, dark, cold winter ahead.

To celebrate St. Martin’s Day, children traditionally bundle up in warm clothes and take to the streets with pretty paper lanterns, which, like the Samhain bonfires or light as a symbol of Christ, represent the triumph of the human spirit over the powers of darkness. In a little parade, the children sing about the beauty of their lanterns and the beliefs they encapsulate.

My children’s school traditionally celebrates St. Martin’s Day. It’s a bit unusual given that we’re in Canada, but there’s a lot to like in this simple and spirit-affirming ritual, so I’m all for it. This past Sunday, pupils, parents and teachers collected on the street outside the school. The children were excited because they’d all made their own lanterns and there were sweets to look forward to after their walk. Plus – and best of all – we had a magnificent escort: two mounted police with big, glossy horses that the children could take turns patting.

The route we were taking was short, off the main roads, and all the neighbors on the street had been told about the walk in advance. Indeed, many of them came to their doors to watch us go by and wave and smile at us on our way.

Except for one woman. About 10 minutes into the walk, I became aware that a large Lincoln SUV was trying to nudge its way through the children. At first I thought nothing of it. I thought that perhaps the driver didn’t understand what was going on, had perhaps turned on to the street and was confused by all the people on the street. I waited for a moment to see if she would pull over, but she didn’t. In fact, she seemed to be trying to scatter the children out of her way, and she’d lunge forward whenever there was a little break in the collection of small figures in front of her.

Perplexed, I walked over the passenger side of the car so I could speak to her without being right in her face. “Excuse me,” I said. “Can you see there are children here? Perhaps you could pull over until everyone is out of the way.”

Instead of the light going on in her eyes (“Ah, yes. Children! That’s what these small creatures are!), she said, with no small degree of venom, “I live on this street. I need to get home.”

“Yes,” I said. “But right now there are all these children on the road. They’ll be turning on to another street in a moment.”

“No one told me about this,” she spat, as if that were reason to go plowing through children. “I need to get home. My husband has to go out.”

“The neighborhood was informed,” I said, now getting testy myself. “You’re really being very dangerous. Please pull over.”

At which point, things degenerated a bit. She told me (language warning!) to fuck off, another parent got quite angry at her, etc. We were at an impasse. Our police escort was too far ahead of us to reach easily, we couldn’t get her to pull over, so each parent just tried to keep the children out of her way until we did turn the corner and she was free to speed home to her waiting husband.

We all calmed down pretty quickly…it’s hard to stay angry when you’re with a bunch of sweet, bundled children singing, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine!”. But the image of that woman’s big SUV and angry face stayed with me, merging into the seemingly unrepentant features of Shena Hardin.

I think there’s a lesson about the relationship between entitlement and the good life in all of this.

It’s best articulated by a question that a reporter threw at Hardin when she was in court. I only caught it quickly in the news coverage, but it was something like, “Why is your time more important than other peoples’ safety?”

Indeed. There’s a sense in both Hardin and Lincoln-woman’s exploits that their needs and wants are somehow more important than other peoples’, even if that actually endangers other people. It’s a pretty stark example of entitlement. We squawk a lot about “entitled” children these days, but I’m not sure that our kids have much on us when it comes to entitlement. We live in a world that encourages us to satisfy virtually all of our desires. Indeed, the ability to do so is pretty much how we’ve come to view the good life.

But that doesn’t necessarily lead us to the good life, to say the least. Though there no doubt always will be people who put their own wants first, to do so hardly creates the communities in which most of us want to live. Kindness, courtesy, reciprocity, and, yes, even patience, surely this is more of an articulation of the good life than shoving a Lincoln through a group of children, or jumping a sidewalk to pass a school bus?

I recognize that there’s a danger in sounding preachy in all of this. So, full disclosure, I’m a grumpy and impatient driver myself. My children have learned all sorts of awful words from me on our regular commutes. But the point is not that we need to strive to be saints and angels, so much as it is the small daily choices we make can grow our communities – and our own lives – in one direction or another.

Me, I’d like to sign up for a good life where no one has to be told that children are more important than cars.

Advertisements