A Weekly Column
Joseph Walker


I wasn’t the brightest seventh grader at Millcreek Junior High School.

You can look it up in my permanent record.  Especially under math and science.

But I was bright enough to know that I wasn’t going to live to be an eighth grader if I didn’t figure out how to get along with John.

John and I were two of the biggest boys in the seventh grade.  I was big because . . . well, I had always been big.  John was big because he had been held back for four or five years.

Well, OK – that was only a rumor.  But he drove a motorcycle to junior high.  Legally.

And yes, I was intimidated.  He had sideburns, for Pete’s sake.  REAL sideburns from face whiskers, not long hair combed down to LOOK like sideburns.  He had cigarette stains on his fingers.  And he had scars on his arms, which you just knew were from knife fights.

So I spent most of the seventh grade trying to avoid John, mostly because he always threatened to beat me up the next time he saw me.  I did a pretty good job of avoiding John until the second semester.  But then I went to my first junior high gym class and there he was, in all his hairy chested glory.  Somehow I knew John and I were eventually going to have to face-off, mano-a-boyo.  I hoped it would be in basketball.  Or maybe baseball.  Or track – I figured I could outrun him, what with all the cigarettes he’d been smoking behind the school.

But Coach Thacker had another idea: wrestling.

“We’re gonna pair you up and see what you’ve got,” the tough-talking coach said during the first day of class.  “We’ll start with you big guys and work our way down.  So you guys . . .” he pointed to John and I “. . . come ready to wrestle tomorrow.”

I spent the next 24 hours trying to come up with a legitimate reason to skip school.  Then I considered a few illegitimate reasons.  Nothing clicked.  I was going to have to face John.  There was no way around it.  I began to wonder if anyone had actually died in a gym class wrestling competition, or if I would be the first.

At last John and I were face-to-face on the school’s wrestling mats.  While Coach Thacker talked to the class about the rules of the competition, I leaned toward John.

“Do you want to do this the hard way or the easy way?” I asked him.

He looked at me, puzzled.  “What?”

“Do you want to do this the hard way or the easy way?” I repeated.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” John growled.

“The hard way is I wrestle you as hard as I can for as long as I can,” I whispered.  “The easy way is I fall back, you fall on top of me and it’s over.”

John smiled.  A fixed junior high school gym class wrestling match – this was something he could understand.  “The easy way,” he said.  “Only at least try to make it look real, OK?”

I nodded – and obeyed.  Six seconds after Coach blew his whistle to start the match, he pounded on the mat to end it.  The rest of the class laughed at how ridiculously easy it had been, and John and I laughed right along with them.

From then on John and I got along pretty well.  We had this understanding.  I understood that he could beat me up, and he understood that he didn’t have to.

Now, I suppose this might have been a better, more inspiring story if I had actually wrestled John, given it my best, and earned his respect through hard, sweaty effort.  But in life we don’t always make noble choices.  The way I saw it, sometimes the battle doesn’t go to the swift or the sweaty.  Sometimes it goes to those who manage to survive. 

And you don’t have to be the brightest seventh grader in the world to see that.

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— © Joseph Walker

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Look What Love Has Done:  Five-Minute Messages to Lift Your Spirit. 

"How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen?  Home Remedies for an Ailing World."

Christmas on Mill Street - An All New Holiday Novel!