Peer pressure is a harsh, forbidding landscape for a teenager to navigate. I know. I’ve been there.
Five weeks before the end of my junior year in high school, my parents pulled up stakes and moved the family to a new town, and I would have to leave my friends and future behind.
At my old school, I was slated to be the starting senior quarterback on the football team and captain of the track team. But that dream ended with the move.
At my new school, which was much larger and tougher, I now navigated hallways where every punk wanted to see how tough the new kid was – or wasn’t. I waged more fistfights in those last few weeks of junior year than I had battled in all of my previous 16 years of life.
And I was, as you might imagine, furious with Mom and Dad for forcing me to seek acceptance in a treacherous pool of new peers.
My first real friend at the new school was a guy named Rich, who shared a couple of classes with me. We were a lot alike – we were both athletes, our fathers were both manual laborers and our mothers were stay-at-home moms who did a bit of part-time work to help ends meet.
Through Rich, I met John. But unlike us, John was a different story.
John lived in a tumble-down house where everything was either poorly mended, broken or teetering between the two. He was being raised by his mother. His father was absent, and if you asked John about him, his eyes would cloak with anger, the muscles of his clenched jaw twitching.
John was scarred by his troubled upbringing, both emotionally and physically. Horrific scars crosshatched the palms of his hands where, as a baby, he had fallen on a space heater that provided the house’s only warmth. Because scars do not stretch as healthy skin does, his hands cupped as he grew, requiring painful surgery every few years to split the scars and splay his fingers wide in braces until they healed – only to do it again in a few years’ time.
John was quick to anger, and he would lash out at the slightest provocation. When he did, you had the feeling he was raining blows on more than the foe standing before him. Much, much more.
In short, if you met him, it wouldn’t take long for you to judge him for what he was – an angry, antisocial punk.
Still, by the time we were seniors, Rich, John and I went everywhere together. I didn’t have many other options, being the new kid with no other friends. John had no other options, being the punk who had alienated everyone else he had ever met. I don’t know what Rich’s excuse was for hanging out with us.
One Saturday, Rich and I drove to John’s house in my parents’ station wagon. I can’t remember where we were headed, but we didn’t have much time to waste.
But as John bounded out the door to join us, his mother called to him, “I told you to clean the garage before you went out. You didn’t do it, so you’re not going anywhere.”
John spun on her and snarled, “We’ve got to go. I’ll clean it later.” An empty promise.
John’s mom held her ground, but John turned his back on her. “I’m going,” he said, “and you can’t stop me.”
My stomach knotted at his tone with his mother. I killed the motor and said to Rich, “Come on, we’ve got a garage to clean before we go.”
John flashed his anger on us. “No way!” He snarled. “My friends shouldn’t have to clean my garage!”
“You’re right,” I said as I brushed past him. “We shouldn’t have to. And we wouldn’t have to if you did what your mom asked you to do.”
In the end, we made a game of it, calling out, “How about this, Mama H?” John’s mom would call out “Trash!” or “Top shelf!” or “In that corner!” In a half hour, we were finished and on our way.
John grumbled as we drove, feeling we had humiliated him somehow, but Rich and I said, “Oh, shut up! When it’s our turn to clean our garages, you’re coming over to do all the heavy work!”
Months later, we were all at John’s house having lunch, and Mama H asked if she could talk to me alone, outside. By the time we were out the door, she was in tears.
“I just wanted to thank you for being John’s friend,” she said to me. “He’s been so much nicer to me lately.” She wanted to say more, but tears caught her throat, so she just reached out and touched my cheek.
I don’t remember what I said in return. It was probably something eloquent like, “Yeah. OK.” I wanted to apologize for making her cry.
Rich, John and I graduated together – a narrow escape in John’s case –and then our paths sent us to distant corners of the planet: Army, Navy and college sent us to Seoul, Saigon and Winston-Salem. After that, employment sent us to London, San Francisco and Chicago. We kept in touch when we could, but our contact gradually dwindled to Christmas cards.
Many years later, my mom came over to my house for dinner, and afterwards we sat over coffee, reminiscing. She asked about Rich and John, and I told her I didn’t have much news about them.
“Well, I’m glad you met them when you went to the new school,” she said. “They were good friends for you.”
I asked mom if she was worried when I started hanging out with John.
She looked puzzled. “Why would I be worried?” she asked.
“Well, you know. I wasn’t happy with the move. And John was a punk. Didn’t you worry about peer pressure?”
Mom smiled. “I know how strong peer pressure can be for a teenager,” she said. She reached out and touched my cheek. “That’s why I knew that you and Rich would straighten him out.”
• Tom “T. R.” Kerth is a Sun City resident and retired English teacher from Park Ridge. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.