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Black, White & Gray MAG
John Snow is my best friend. John. His name is so easy to say. Not like Jacob. John. It's a simple name, quick to say, because he's quick to help, quick to speak up, quick to respond. He is a simple guy. Not like me.
Jacob Ethan Sterninlich - that's my name. It's hard, cutting. It's as if some long-dead ancestor picked random sounds and threaded them together. None of my teachers ever pronounced it properly, but I never corrected them. If I did, it wouldn't accomplish anything, and I could see the stares of my classmates as they judged me while I tried to teach them how to say it.
I kept my silence
But that was me: I always thought of the consequences, unlike John. He never quieted down simply because someone might beat him up for saying the things he did. He did things because they felt good, and because they felt right. If he saw something he didn't like, he would do something about it while I hid in the corner.
I don't understand how we found each other in the beginning of high school. We saw things so differently it just seemed we were natural foils. And yet, out of a crowd of a thousand, John picked me to be his best friend. Did I look like I could stand up to anyone like he did? I think he knew that I would be of no help in his mission to rid the world of "stupid asses," but I guess opposites attract because we became friends. Maybe he was trying to teach me something about the world and how he saw it.
"Look at Alex - stupid ass," he said to me once while we were riding the bus home, his hands shaking with what anyone else might see as fear. But I knew it was anger. John was fearless. His attention was aimed at a beast of a fellow junior who had a lighter in his hand and was flicking it on and off dangerously close to a sophomore's head. The sophomore laughed, but his blond, buzz-cut head shook. He turned toward me for a second, and I noticed that his smile seemed counterfeit, his eyes wide with fear. I made a joke, something about his throaty laugh sounding like the mating call of a moose.
John didn't hear me. "I want to kill him. Where does he get off?"
I began making excuses for Alex, the bully, the "Bad Guy," in the hopes that John wouldn't do anything that would get us killed. I knew that he was seconds away from assaulting Alex and reminded him of what happened the last time he tried to punch someone who was being a "stupid ass." Detention for a week, and he was lucky. It was because the teacher who had punished him liked him so much. He spoke his mind, without thinking about the repercussions. All the teachers praised his courage. I envied him.
I had tried once to speak my mind during English class. We were reading The Crucible and I attempted to voice an unconventional view. But it seemed that everything I said was wrong, with the girls sitting behind me giggling and the boys imitating my stammering.
That was the last time I tried.
Now, I think about everything I say, everything I do before I do it. I would rather save myself the embarrassment and be taciturn than face the ridicule of my peers.
But not John. He wouldn't take my "crap" about how Alex was probably too stupid to understand what he was doing. He wouldn't listen when I told him that Alex would be getting off soon. He never backed down.
"Come on, we can kick his ass tomorrow," I pleaded, hoping he would have cooled off by then.
He looked at me as if I were the crazy one. "No! We get him now, or we don't get him!" Black or white.
I shrank back into my seat. It was all so easy for him to decide what was right and what was wrong. My mind was filled with the consequences of what would happen and empathy for a bully who might have a reason for acting the way he did. My mind was clouded, and those decisions between black and white were confused. I could only see in shades of gray.
Two seats in front of us, Alex, oblivious to John's volatile disposition, was holding the lighter close to a junior's long, curly hair. "So much hairspray," he chuckled. "It would go up like this!" He snapped his fingers.
John emitted what sounded like a low growl. I would have laughed if his expression hadn't scared me so much. He leaned forward and kicked Alex's hand, and the lighter flying into the front rows of the bus.
"What the -?" Alex turned his bulky head to see John standing, 100 pounds lighter but the most formidable opponent he had ever crossed.
"What the hell goes through your head?" John hissed, his hands balled into fists at his sides.
"Yo man, just havin' some fun," Alex replied, a glint of some feeling that I could not identify appearing in his eyes. In the whole three months we had been riding the bus with Alex, this was the first time I saw something besides cockiness in his expression. "No need to get all pissy." I recognized it. It was fear.
The bus slowed as Alex fumbled for words that weren't there. John stood his ground, ready to take the first hit, and rebound with his own. But Alex would not strike. They were David and Goliath in a staring contest, and Goliath was losing ground fast. Alex's hand groped for his bag and the bus jerked to a halt. It was not his stop, but he shuffled off the bus.
John grinned at the sophomore as the bus began again. Then he looked at me and laughed. "Look at that," he said. "He was scared. The big wimp."
He sat back down in his seat.
The next day I went to school feeling the day before could have ended very differently. I couldn't believe Alex had backed down so easily. John had been right: he really was a wimp. I couldn't wait until sixth period so I could tell John how intimidated Alex had looked.
It wasn't until after the ambulance had left that I heard what happened.
Alex had gathered a group of similarly wimpy bullies and approached John in the hallway.
Smiling, John had undoubtedly insulted Alex, ready to take any punches he would throw. But Alex's buddies had grabbed him from behind, knocking his head into a wall and holding him while Alex pummeled him.
Bullies, it just so happens, do not like to be made a fool of. This was a coward's revenge.
I remember thinking that I hadn't even been there to help him, though I wonder if I really would have had the guts to dive into a crowd of five angry football players.
John had no chance. None of his teachers had come to help him. They would probably say they hadn't heard what was happening, but I know the truth. They were too afraid. Too afraid, even for their best student. Would I be too afraid, even for my best friend?
I am here on the bus again. When I get home, my parents will take me to see John. He still has not woken up, and until he does, the police will have to wait to know the names of his assailants. Because no one witnessed it, or because they were too afraid to come forward. But they might believe me when I tell them who did it and why. It was Alex, I will tell them, and it was because John spoke his mind and was ready to defend his words.
And here I am, where it started. Alex leans over to a sophomore sitting across from him, and slaps him on the side of the head.
"W-why did you do that?" the sophomore asks, terror mixed with anger in his eyes.
Alex eyes him with contempt. "Because you're a sophomore, and I don't like you. You gonna do anything about it?"
The sophomore breaks away from Alex's stare and looks at his feet, his muscles tense. It is submission. He will do nothing.
I look down and realize that my hands are shaking as adrenaline rushes through my veins. I can no longer feel the sense of dread in my stomach. This is what John must have felt when he spoke his mind. I knew I had to be there when he woke up, to tell him that my vision was no longer cloudy gray, overshadowed by worry. I had to tell him I was seeing in black and white.
Alex laughed at his own superiority, and my anger reached its apex.
I stood up.