The Day I Stopped Making Fun
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
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
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
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
“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.
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.
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
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
I could smell his breath as he leaned close and looked at my
neck. “You got some scars on your neck,” he said.
“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
Finally, I just mumbled, “No. Not really.”
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.
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 www.stevenjames.com.
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