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.