Bad Company

I Samuel 22:2

In my seventh grade year, John Terrell was a late addition to our class.  For some reason, everyone seemed to use his full name when referring to him. As any youngster knows, grown-ups use your full name when you’re in trouble. John was usually in trouble, so everyone always used his full name. He was a chunky, bull-headed troublemaker who not only thought about things he could do to get in trouble, he did them, every time. He was kind of like an adolescent minotaur. There was no such thing as an idle threat to John Terrell. In fact, he never threatened anything, he just did it. Therefore, he and I became fast friends. I could think up bad things, but I was scared to do them; I always get caught. John was my way of acting out, vicariously.


(Actual minotaur – not John Terrell)

Our English teacher, Mrs. Hall, was a strange mix of old-fashioned, hard-nosed, strict-disciplinarian school marm and fragile health invalid. In appearance, she was very tall, very thin, and very “pointy,” for lack of a better term. She drank only goat’s milk, and she was (or at least claimed to be) deathly allergic to cologne and chalk dust. I thought she chose her profession unwisely, since secondary English is chock-full of both. If she left the room for some reason, and if John was tired of English for the day, he would simply walk to the chalk board and clap two erasers together a couple of times. When she returned, class would be dismissed within three minutes.

By the time we got to high school, John had grown much taller and stronger. Even though I eventually was named the “most improved” player on the basketball team, I was never very good. From where I started (the very beginning) it didn’t take much to improve greatly. John wasn’t very good either, but he had a perceived usefulness.  If the opposing team had a player that was especially dangerous on the court, our coach would substitute in John. He had but one task, which he greatly relished – “Foul that kid the next time he goes up for a shot.” John was expendable, and he knew it, so he made it count. One play, one foul, “Number 44 – you’re ejected!”

Another reason John and I got along was that he was somewhat of an outcast, like me.  His father made him work hard on the family farm hours before school started, so his hands were always greasy and dirty. Also, he rarely bathed. His house was always trashy, (in more ways than one) and it smelled strange. I visited often, but I never liked staying for dinner. There was always a pile of dirty clothes, but never a pile of clean ones. I suspect he and his sisters just reached to the bottom of the pile, wore them for a while, then put them on top. That way there was always variety.  The others in our class had to tolerate John’s presence at school, but they otherwise avoided him. I found this useful, for if I was with John, and if they avoided John, they would also be avoiding me, thus they were leaving me alone. For that, I was grateful.

John knew his dad didn’t care if we snuck a beer, and he knew where his dad hid “those” magazines. This boy was trouble, but I didn’t care. It’s likely that my father’s recent death and the bullying I endured contributed to a growing sense of being tired of being good. It just didn’t seem to pay off in the end. In Stephen King’s book, On Writing, he says of himself, “In my character, a kind of wildness and a deep conservatism are wound together like hair in a braid.” That was me. I didn’t abandon my foundational faith, I just put it on hold.  I was caught between genuine empathy for John and a strange respect for his “I don’t give a d—” attitude.

In the time I spent as John Terrell’s friend, I learned that he wasn’t as much a ruffian as he was self-protective. Like me, he was ostracized. My manner of coping was withdrawal while his was aggression. I believe he intentionally alienated people in order to avoid being hurt. He had a secret tender and caring aspect that few, if any, saw. There is a strange camaraderie among outcasts. I Samuel describes the men who came to join David when he was running from Saul’s army. Those who were in debt, those who were in distress, and those who were discontent banded together. I would imagine these men might not have come together apart from their shared troubles. They probably forged strong and lasting bonds through those events.

After I left Hartley, I didn’t keep up much with John. I occasionally heard about him through others, and he called me a couple of times. He married, became a truck-driver, and raised kids. We all grow up sometime. I suspect he is still a bull of a man, and I suspect he still does exactly as he pleases, consequences be hanged, but I wouldn’t mind him being in my corner if I ever got in a jam.


Published in: on July 24, 2018 at 9:25 am  Leave a Comment  

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