AT FIRST, I THOUGHT THE YOUNG man leaving the movie theater was speaking to me. "I saw you," he said, in a not unfriendly voice. "You were trying not to cry during the movie, weren't you?"
I was about to answer "Yes" when suddenly I realized he was talking not to me but to the boy walking alongside him. "Well, son," the father continued, "it's OK to cry. Because it was a very sad movie. And it makes you think about how sad some things are in life."
Sad is one word to describe the way things are in the movie "Boyz N the Hood." Other words might be: heartbreaking, hopeful, despairing, shocking and, above all else, violent.
"Boyz N the Hood" tells the story of black teen-agers trapped in the "hood" -- a violent, dead-end neighborhood in Los Angeles where aimlessness is a way of life and rage simmers constantly, like soup on a stove, waiting to boil over.
But "Boyz" is not about gangs or gang warfare in Los Angeles -- although the possibility of violence lies coiled inside every scene. Instead, it tackles the important issue of how to counter the violence. Particularly the casual, senseless violence that says: Life is worthless. Your life means nothing to me. And my life is as cheap to me as yours.
The antidote to this kind of deadly emotional emptiness and the violence that proceeds from it, suggests the film, is simple: It calls for the infusion into a child's life of such traditional values as discipline, education and the unwavering love of a strong parent.
In scenes so powerful they make your throat ache, we witness what happens to the child who has someone on his side, rooting for him, and what happens to the child who does not. One of them escapes the violence -- which is both spiritual and physical -- and one does not.
Of course, it's not exactly a new theory -- that those who receive little love as children do not exactly grow up to love the world that neglected them. Many of these children, as murder statistics tell us, carry their wishes for revenge into adulthood by acting in a violent manner.
But as the family structure grows more frail in our society and as we become more unclear about how to combat its disintegration, there's an increasing tendency to blame the symptoms that our unloved children exhibit as adolescents. We blame their violent acts on drug use or alcohol or falling in with the wrong crowd.
But we need to ask ourselves: Why do adolescents turn to drugs and violence? Psychiatrist Robert Coles, who has studied the inner lives of children for 25 years, identifies many of the drug and violence problems as attempts to fill "the inner emptiness, the void" felt by young people who have never been loved or nurtured by an adult.
Of course, the inner emptiness which can lead to senseless violence and a lack of respect for life is not limited to black teen-agers -- to the "Boyz N the Hood." Deborah Prothrow-Stith, a public health doctor at Harvard who has studied the problem, )) concludes that "poverty rather than race seems to be the major risk factor" in producing a violent person.
But there is poverty of the spiritual kind as well as the material kind. And the good news, I suppose, is that occasionally we discover how little it can take to turn around the spirit of the most hardened adolescent. Consider, for example, the success of a program in Los Angeles that brings together a group of juvenile felons, mostly gang members, with a group of severely handicapped students.
The program is run by the Lynn Pace School for Special Education, a Los Angeles County Department of Education facility, and the Southeast Community Day Center School, which is part of the juvenile court school system. The juvenile offenders work with the disabled students -- helping them walk, eat, speak, use computers and play. The program is based on the philosophy that "everyone needs to be needed."
The disabled students, on the other hand, have taught the ganmembers something about love and responsibility and being needed by another person. And they have taught the gang members how to hug someone -- and be hugged back.
Rudy, a gang member, wrote this about his work with these blind and autistic and crippled children, according to a Washington Post article: "I never had anyone need me before. Sometimes, I feel like lending my eyes or my legs to some of these children so they could see or walk."
Reading such thoughts, I can't help but wonder how many other teen-agers could be salvaged if we got serious about the VTC problems of poverty and the decline of parents capable of nurturing their children. After all, the Boyz N the Hood have names, too. And one of them could be Rudy.