"I want to tell you a story," the city schoolteacher said.
"I don't know what you're going to think about it. Or what you're going to think about me. But it's been bothering me and I want to share it.
"I think," she said, "that this story says something about the problems many of our children face these days, especially our young men.
"It is a sad story," said the teacher. "It really is a sad story."
It began last Saturday around 7 p.m. She and her husband were driving along Reisterstown Road in northwest Baltimore when they decided to stop at an International House of Pancakes to get a newspaper from a box there.
"As soon as we got out of the car," said the teacher, "two little boys came running up at full speed as fast as they could.
"Hey, mister, hey, mister," said the older of the little boys, "are you going to get something to eat?"
"No," said her husband, a salesman. "We're just getting a newspaper."
"Aw, man," said the little boy, "if you were getting something to eat, we could go in with you. Kids get to eat free.
"Are you sure you aren't getting something to eat?" pressed the little boy in the wheedling way kids have. "Aw, man," he continued, "I wish you would get something to eat so we could eat, too."
The teacher and her husband looked at each other. They had had a long day. They had just eaten. They were anxious to get home.
On the other hand: "Those kids obviously were very, very hungry," she said. "And we were kind of curious as to why they had to do this."
So, they eventually agreed to treat the two little boys to a meal. Inside the restaurant, their waitress chuckled. "I see they finally got somebody to do it," she said.
"They were just like two average little boys," said the teacher. "They were small and skinny and kind of unkempt. You know, dirty T-shirt and shorts. One had a broken tooth in the front of his mouth. But they also had an air about them, too, a street hardness, like this wasn't the first time they had done this. Two little boys with no parental guidance, hungry and uncared for."
The teacher and her husband learned that the boys were brothers, ages 11 and 10 years old, and that they lived quite a good distance away with their mother off Pennsylvania Avenue. They said they had caught the subway to Reisterstown Road and probably would walk home.
"Don't you think your mother will be worried?" asked the teacher. "And isn't that a long way to walk -- especially since it's getting dark?"
"No," they replied with juvenile bravado. "We're not scared. And our mother doesn't mind."
The salad came. "Man!" exclaimed the boys, "we love salad!"
They wolfed it down -- proof, as far as the teacher was concerned, that they must have been desperately hungry, because most little boys normally don't like salads. The waitress brought two adult-sized cheeseburgers and generous helpings of fries. The two little boys wolfed those down, too.
Meanwhile, the teacher learned the boys were in the third and fourth grades -- slightly behind for their ages. She learned, though, that the older boy was reading from an advanced-level textbook, and that impressed her.
She learned that the two sometimes earned money as squeegee kids, or by offering to pump gas for motorists, or by running small errands for merchants. They said they needed the money for food and for clothes for school.
At the end of the meal, the couple gave the two little boys money for subway fare and went home.
And there the story ends.
"But I keep thinking about it and thinking about it," the teacher said. "It bothers me. It probably will always bother me. I see these little boys five years from now, when some drug dealer says you can make money by working for him.
"Or I think about that man in Wisconsin who killed all those men and nobody missed them. Somebody like that could kill these little boys and their mother might never even miss them.
"I keep wondering what we should have done to help these little boys," she said. "There must be many children like them who are neglected, who aren't eating. I keep asking myself, 'Where do we go?' 'What do we do?' 'How do we solve this problem?' "
"It is," concluded the teacher, "really a sad story."