The promise – How virtual tour of Union Station by youngest transit fans became a lesson in tough realities but also assurance things will get better

It’s been tough to be an adult, adjusting life and movements around a pandemic. But imagine, as a child, recent adjustments aren’t really changes at all – they’re just realities of life. Anne Marie Aikins, Metrolinx’s well-known head of media relations, was reminded as she recently led a group of kindergarten students through a virtual tour of Toronto’s Union Station, that their fortitude can still mask dealing with tough realities. But, as well, in this column, she offers up a promise that all will be far better in the future.

These are the smallest journeys I always enjoy the most – but this one shook me a bit.

A year into the pandemic and tours with young transit fans are still happening, albeit virtually for safety.

Recently, a virtual class from the Toronto District School Board, located in the northeast of Scarborough, zoomed around Union Station with me to see the trains arrive, meet the engineers as they arrived from the airport, as well as station staff as they assisted customers and cleaned the station.

Image shows Anne Marie Aikins on her phone.
Anne Marie Aikins giving a virtual session – after putting her GO Bear mask on right-side up. (Metrolinx photo)

Completely online, the students learned about Toronto’s historic Union Station building and they had an opportunity to ask me anything they wanted. The frank, direct questions at times caught me off guard and reminded me just how difficult the COVID-19 experience has been on our young people. Their resilience is inspiring but can hide the depth of the impact on their lives that we must never forget.

Their teachers, Kimberley Norman and Susie Surette, told me about their 24 students, aged four to six-years-old, who have been attending school exclusively online since last October. They spoke about their students with such fondness and excitement and I couldn’t help but be impressed with their dedication.

“Our students have done a number of virtual field trips and are very interested in asking questions and interacting in any way,” Kimberley explained. “We give them a lot of vocabulary introduction and they will often ask what a word means or for a picture to connect their learning.”

“Will people be back to riding trains again when I’m grown up.”

Student question during virtual Union Station tour

Guided and supported by these incredible teachers, it struck me that these young souls have spent a good portion of their few years on earth living through all the fear, uncertainty and grief delivered by a global pandemic. Add to this the tension closer to home, as their families cope with these burdens.

Before the virtual tour, the teachers had arranged for me to do a pretend tour with their class dog, Buddy – a comforting stuffed animal – ahead of time. So, I was ready with Buddy stories.

I couldn’t wait to meet them and help teach them about transit and the history behind the railway and Union Station. What I was not expecting, was for the experience to leave such a lasting impact on me.

Image shows questions on a screen.
An example of the online interaction with the students. In the photo in the middle, look for class mascot, Buddy. (Metrolinx image)

Some of the questions were expected – “How many trains do we have?” (hundreds). “Do I like my job?” (most days). “Have I driven a train before?” (I wish, but nope).

“What part of the tour did Buddy like best? (riding the trains, of course, especially since he didn’t need to ride in a crate).

“Good,” said one little guy.

“Buddy hates his crate because he’s getting too big,” Susie chimed in.

“Do lots of people ride the trains?” (well, usually, but not right now unfortunately). And the inevitable, “But, why?”

“People are doing their best to keep each other safe by staying home right now during the pandemic,” I explained. “So, most aren’t riding public transit right now, but I really hope one day we will see them all again.”

“But, why are they staying home?” the children wondered.

The doctors recommend we stay home as much as possible during the pandemic, I explained, just like you are doing so we don’t get sick from the virus.

Image shows an UP Express train.
The students get to see an UP Express train. (Metrolinx photo)

One keen eye spotted the hand sanitizer dispenser in the UP station and asked if we have it in buses too.

“Buses, trains and stations,” I said.

“Do you wear a mask everyday at work?” they wanted to know.

I explained that I am fortunate to be able to work from home much of the time, but if I do come into Union Station, just like other staff, I wear a mask to protect myself, each other and our customers.

“I’ve been vaccinated now but it is important that I still wear a mask while I am at work until more people are vaccinated,” I assured.

“I want to do that too,” I heard a quiet sad voice say in the background.

You will, I promised.

“I want to have an Easter bunny party and hunt for eggs, but Mom says I can’t,” another said.

“They really miss being at school,” Kimberley said.

One student said she wants to be a subway driver like her dad when she grows up.

“Will people be back to riding trains again when I’m grown up?” they asked.

Such wistful thoughts spoken by such young voices left me without the best answers to the most important questions.

“When can we go back to school? I want to see my friends and my teachers. I really miss them,” I heard.

It won’t be like this forever, I promised them.

“Promise?” came the reply.

I promise. Better days are ahead. So yes, I promise.

Then one noticed that I was wearing my GO Bear mask upside down and that made them giggle.

By Anne Marie Aikins, senior manager of media