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The Day I Stopped Making Fun of John

By Steven James I wasn’t the one who started it. Marty did. Or maybe it was Kyle. It’s hard to say for sure. We were all kinda involved.

It was like a game. A thrill-thing. To see how far we could go before we got caught. Or before he completely lost it. And I wasn’t the one who came up with the names we used. It was Marty. He had a knack for it. He always knew just the right thing to say behind someone’s back. Or from the other end of the hall. Or the other side of the room.

Yeah, even though I should have known better, I liked making fun of John.

He wasn’t like some of the kids you make fun of…the quiet little mousy ones who laugh along with you because they’re scared of you. Or who burst into tears and run off and take all the fun out of it. John wasn’t like that. He was more like a time bomb waiting to go off. He would get in your face and spit out the words, “What did you say?”

“Nothing,” we’d say, snickering. And he’d stand there and stare at you with eyes like drill bits, boring into your head.

“I heard you.”

“You heard wrong.”

And then he would turn and walk away and we’d say the same things again, just loud enough for him to hear. He had a reputation at our school so it was easy to get him into trouble. All the teacher’s had heard about John, so they were always “keeping an eye on him.” That made it easier for us to get him into trouble. And we knew just how to play it out so that it looked like it was all his fault when something went down.

But it was a fine line. We had to be careful because he was tough. And unusually strong. You didn’t want to go too far because he could mess you up pretty bad if he ever really lost control. So that’s why we stuck together and avoided being alone with John.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending anything we did. I just never thought of it as that big of a deal. It seemed like a bunch of harmless fun at the time. And we knew just how long his fuse was.

Or at least, we thought we did.

We were juniors when everything hit the fan. In algebra class.

You gotta know our algebra teacher, Mr. Drexel, was the size of a lowland gorilla. He’d played hockey in college and was missing a couple teeth. Right in the front. He helped coach the football team at my high school and had been known to toss 260 pound linemen onto the ground for daring to mouth off to him. All that, and he was as bald as a cue ball--with this one vein on his forehead that would bulge out and pulsate whenever he got really mad. It didn’t happen much.

You didn’t mess with Mr. Drexel.

So anyway, that day we were playing off some rumors we’d heard. You know, about John’s family. Things about his mom and drugs. And his dad being a drunk. We had no idea if they were true, but the rumors sure gave us plenty of good ammunition.

Whispered comments. Pointing fingers. Passed notes. The whole deal. Even the girls were laughing at him. Right in the middle of Mr. Drexel’s class, while his back was turned and he was writing equations on the board.

And that’s when John lost it.

He exploded out of his seat and slammed into Marty, fists flying. A couple girls started screaming and some of the guys started cheering. In a second, Mr. Drexel had flown down the aisle, knocking desks to each side. And then, he was on top of John.

Kyle and a couple of other guys held Marty back.

“I didn’t do nothing!” yelled Marty, his face half-smashed in. “Did you see that? My dad’s gonna sue!”

John writhed beneath the mass of Mr. Drexel. His breathing fast and heavy, staring like a caged animal at Marty.

“Calm down, John,” said Mr. Drexel. “I need you to calm down!”

Instead of laughing at the whole deal like you might have expected, we all just stood there quiet and still. Maybe because we realized any one of us could have been in Marty’s place. Finally, someone went and told the people at the office what was happening.

After a couple minutes, Mr. Drexel helped John to his feet. Then, without a word, he led him outside the door and we could hear him talking to John in the hallway. Pretty soon we heard the voice of Mr. Angelou, the vice-principal, and through the frosted glass of the door, we could see the outline of one of the cops who patrol the halls. Together they led John away.

We just sat there as still as possible trying to hear what was going on.

Then, Marty was taken to the nurse and Mr. Drexel walked back into the room.

That vein was throbbing on his forehead.

He scanned the room, locking eyes with different students, one by one.

“I know what you’re doing,” he said, his voice measured and slow. “And it’s gone on long enough. It stops here. Now. Today. Got it, Kyle?”

Kyle gulped and nodded.


Aaron nodded.

I sat there thinking, Man, you guys are toast. You are so busted! Mr. Drexel is onto you. And then, he said my name.


I was speechless. I had all these excuses in my head, I didn’t start it! It was Marty who came up with the names! What I said isn’t as bad as Kyle and those other guys!

But deep down inside of me, something ugly churned in my stomach.


I nodded.

John was kicked out of school for awhile. Some people said for a month. Others said for good. Marty recovered. And I tried not to think about that day in algebra. And the ugly feeling inside.

Then, about two weeks later, on a hot April afternoon right after school, I was heading to the mall to meet this girl. The fastest way to the mall from my high school was to walk the railroad tracks right straight through town. We weren’t supposed to do it, but it shaved off about 15 minutes.

That’s when I when I saw someone ahead of me.

It was John.

He was walking straight toward me.

Quickly, I looked around to see if there was somewhere to go. But there wasn’t.

Oh man, he’s coming to get me. And there’s no Mr. Drexel around to stop him. He’s finally gonna pay me back once and for all. I knew he could take me. I knew I was in trouble.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” I said uneasily.

I was still looking for a place to run when he walked up to me. John wasn’t the kind of you guy you wanted to take on by yourself. Especially after what happened in algebra class.

“Where you going?”

“The mall. You?”

“I have a meeting with my probation officer,” he said.
Probation officer?! I wasn’t sure how to respond.

“Oh,” I said stupidly.

“Do you know what that is?” John asked.

“Of course,” I lied.

John laughed a little. I think he knew I was lying, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he told me all about probation officers and what they do. “He tries to keep me from getting in trouble again,” he explained.

“Oh,” I said again.

We stood there for an awkward moment, and then John took another step toward me.

Here we go. Stand your ground! Try not to let him know you’re afraid!

I could smell his breath as he leaned close and looked at my neck. “You got some scars on your neck,” he said. “What happened?”

“Um, when I was a baby, hot grease fell on me,” I sputtered. “Burned my neck and chest.”

He nodded, like he understood. “I got some scars, too,” he said. Then, he rolled up his sleeve to reveal a dozen circular scars about the size of a pencil. “When I was a kid and my old man got really drunk, he’d put out his cigarettes on my arm.”

I stared at John’s arm, imagining him as a little kid and his dad holding him down while he snuffed out his burning cigarettes against John’s skin.

“Did it hurt?” I knew it was a stupid question, but I didn’t know what else to say.

I thought he’d probably laugh and say something about how he didn’t even flinch. How he could stand a hundred cigarettes being put out on his arm. Or a thousand. But he didn’t. He just kinda quietly rolled his sleeve back down.

“Yeah. It hurt.” Then he looked up at me and stood real still. “You surprised I got a probation officer?”

The question caught me off guard. Or course, the answer was, “no,” I wasn’t surprised he was on probation, but I was afraid to say so because I thought he might get mad at me.

Finally, I just mumbled, “No. Not really.”

He nodded.

More than anything else I was surprised John was even talking to me. After everything that had happened. The whole thing was weird. It totally took me off guard.

“Well, see ya,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

And John brushed past me and walked away.

I turned and watched him go. A little ways down, he hopped from track to track just like I sometimes did.

He’s just a normal guy like me, I thought as he headed off to meet his probation officer and I turned toward the mall. He’s just like me.

And the springtime sun felt unusually hot and uncomfortable on the back of my neck.

I didn’t see much of John after that day—a few times around town. And at a couple softball games that summer. Standing off to the side of the stands, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. We nodded to each other. That was about it.

And the next year he never showed up at school. Maybe he dropped out. Maybe he moved. Maybe he just kinda faded away.

You hear about kids like John sometimes. On the news. In the paper. They’re the kids who snap because of kids like me. They’re the ones who bring the guns to school. They’re the ones who learn how to build bombs surfing the internet late at night while the rest of us lay fast asleep in our cozy middle class homes in our cozy middle class towns.

I used to know one of those kids. He showed me his scars.

His name was John.

Steven JamesAs one of the nation's most innovative storytellers, Steven James appears weekly at conferences, churches, schools, and special events around the country sharing his unique blend of drama, comedy, and inspirational speaking. Learn more at


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