Overhearing conversations on a rush-hour packed subway car isn't easy to avoid. Most of us in the back of the car that day probably wished we could retreat into our reveries about what we'd be having for dinner instead of hearing this one.
We averted our adult eyes while two adolescent boys boasted to each other of the pummeling they'd dished out to various enemies. They looked like average kids - jeans, sneakers, T-shirts, jackets - nothing that would conjure up the image of a tough guy looking for a fight. But if the violent actions they described were shown in a movie theater, they wouldn't be allowed to enter without an adult.
The bigger, and perhaps older, of the two mimicked himself smashing both his arms together onto his victim's head repeatedly, while the smaller boy asked eagerly several times: "Did he cry?"
The tension in the back portion of the subway car was palpable. A sharp reprimand kept playing itself in my head: "Hasn't anyone told you that violence is not cool? How can you possibly enjoy causing other people pain?"
But these boys clearly had a different kind of life from mine - what could I know? Well, I knew a reprimand from a random woman on the subway wouldn't make a dent.
A sense of urgency, a need to do something, kept pushing at me. Too often I've read news stories about children responsible for acts of violence that suggest a moral void. Or of adults who "go over the edge" and whose childhood escapades of torturing cats or bullying other children are then revealed. When the bigger boy rattled off a story about another boy he knew who stabbed a girl and buried her somewhere in their neighborhood, the last impulse to ignore them fled.
As the crowd thinned out I stood directly in front of the boys. This time I didn't avert my eyes. I wanted them to know that of all these people standing around trying not to hear, someone was actually listening to and watching them.
Having instantly rejected the reprimand idea, I hoped to see their innocence underneath the boasts, and give them a hint that it was something they could value, too. Time was short, but something gave me an idea: While he talked, the bigger boy fingered a brown plastic guitar pick, just like the one I'd tried to use when I was about his age.
"Do you play guitar?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said.
I learned that he played rock music. I played classical, I told him, so I didn't end up using the pick much.
The younger boy jumped in. "Did it hurt your fingers?" he asked.
"No," I explained. Apart from a few calluses at the beginning, the nylon strings on classical guitars don't really hurt.
Within a minute, their conversation had shifted from the desire to inflict pain to concern about avoiding it. As they got off the subway a few stops later, I couldn't resist making a direct plea: "Have fun playing guitar. More guitar and less fighting!"
The tension inside the train broke audibly as passengers began chatting about how disturbing the boys' comments had been. A woman who'd been sitting near them made eye contact with me and said, "You gotta love boys that age." While her voice expressed some exasperation at the idea that "boys will be boys," her words had a double meaning to me. Our conversation about guitars occupied just a tiny fraction of the boys' day, but I hoped the genuine concern that impelled me to start it lasted well beyond that subway ride.
*Stacy A. Teicher is on the Monitor staff.