It was Tuesday morning. Our part-time teacher friend was in a downtown plaza when two girls in her school's uniform came shrilling past. The school had asked staff to check on possible truants, so our friend stopped the girls and asked a few questions. She asked politely, she's that sort of person.
Yeah, the girls said, they had permission. Nah, they didn't have a note. Their names? What was she pickin' on them for, the snoopy cow? Did she have a problem?
The girls' charmless responses are one point of this anecdote. The other point is that as our friend tried to get the information, several people came by, realised a confrontation of some sort between adult and teenagers was under way, averted their eyes, and passed on.
The reactions from the girls and other people fuelled each other. The girls were loud and defiant because they felt confident that nobody would stop to help the teacher. Nobody stopped to help the teacher because the girls were being loud and defiant. They walked on and left the problem to "someone who was paid to do it".
Once, it would have been different. Other adults would have felt they had not only the right but the obligation to see if our teacher friend needed help. The girls would have anticipated such a reaction and very probably modified their behaviour.
But other adults don't get involved now. They say, "It's not my job ... not my problem". They declare that schools or the police or the government should do something about it.
Indeed it's not their job, though that's a pretty anaemic justification. But it is definitely their problem. Schools see pupils for six hours a day, 200 days a year. Police and social workers see them less. Even parents, the other group who "should do something about it", see them for limited times, especially when they are teenagers.
But all of them are seen at some time by the larger community. And as long as that community ignores children being unpleasant in public, those kids will keep on being unpleasant.
The problem isn't new. Social standards continually veer between the poles of individual freedom and collective sanction. Complaints about K Road larrikins had letters to the editor columns running hot in the 1890s.
I am certainly not advocating a return to the social surveillance of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, where loudspeakers urged citizens to stand at their front gates and report anyone behaving inappropriately.
But if we as individuals find the public behaviour of others unacceptable, action to change that behaviour has to come from us, not from some hired hitmen, which is what Government departments must act as in such situations.
Is it impossible? Is it ludicrous to suggest that an adult steps in against, say, a group of verbally abusive and physically intimidating children?
Yes, it probably is. But if instead of a single adult standing like our teacher friend while others pass by, a group of such adults support one another - the way they would at an accident or mishap - a positive result is much more likely.
I mean that mishap-accident parallel. Failing to help others as they try to deal with such a situation makes victims of them. It also makes victims of the children involved - they get the wrong message on how to relate to the rest of society.
Another parallel is neighbourhood support groups, which work wonders in the suburbs. They reduce friction, apprehension, isolation. Why shouldn't their values of co-operation and common sense be applied in public places as well?
* David Hill is a New Plymouth writer.By David Hill