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When you’re 18, what defines greatness? That is, how do you stand out in a crowd?
When I was in high school, like most guys, I wanted to be a standout athlete. Others would want to be the smartest kid in class.
Lots of people would wish to be voted most popular.
Recently we lost an extraordinary young man in our community, John Powell.
Johnathan Robert Powell, 18, of Goshen, died Sunday July 17, 2011, in a car crash on U.S. 42.
He was a 2011 graduate of North Oldham High School, and he wasn’t any of those things that come most quickly to mind about 18 year olds.
Yet, in my 18 years of working with high school students, I’ve never met anyone quite like John.
I think that’s why this loss is hitting everyone so hard who knew John.
It’s impossible to define that special quality when someone says, “He just has it.”
Yet, we all know “it” when we see it. John Powell had “it” in spades.
John was a student this past year in my first period senior English class.
If it’s been years since you’ve sat in a class at 8:30 in the morning, things haven’t changed much.
Most students come wandering in a minute or two before the bell rings.
When you look out at 30 kids that early, they look pretty bad. Some have literally been out of bed for about 15 minutes.
Others enjoyed four or five hours of sleep. Still others have been out all night. Of all the things kids want to do, studying English is definitely not on that list.
Now John was not an English scholar. He was, however, one of the best natural conversationalists I’ve ever met.
Everyday, I start class by asking the generic, “What’s goin’ on?”
John always took the bait and started a conversation.
He wouldn’t raise his hand; he’d just start talking in that beautiful country twang of his.
By the time he had ended his comments, more often than not, our class would be laughing out loud.
His gift of creating laughter at the beginning of the day was one you can’t measure.
Usually John would tell of some kind of experience around the river.
He grew up on the water and spent enormous hours working with his beloved uncle, local river legend Randy Powell.
John could handle any piece of heavy or light equipment with skill. Can you imagine lifting a houseboat out of the water with a forklift?
John would often talk about something that went wrong and discuss how he’d overcome the obstacle. He possessed an innate ability to improvise.
He would have been hugely successful on the Survivor television series. His skill with people, his quick mind and his talent with his hands would have made him impossible to vote off the island.
One day, during a break in class, John said, “Stev-o, look out that window.”
He had an endearing way of occasionally calling me by this nickname, so I left my desk and looked out.
In the far corner of the North Oldham High School parking lot was the beat up truck John had proudly purchased for $200.
The rusty truck definitely stood out in the sea of shiny new cars.
Hitched on the back was an old flatbed trailer with an even rustier truck chained to the top.
John had driven a scrap trailer loaded with cargo to school.
He asked, “How much do you think I’ll get for that at the scrap yard?”
I was pretty clueless.
“$400-$500,” was all he said.
I asked, “How much will you make this year?”
“I’ll make between $20,000 and $25,000.”
Some people think high school kids are lazy. If you looked at John’s grades, you might have come to the same conclusion.
Yet, I’ve never met a kid with more God-given entrepreneurial ability than John. John was almost a throw back to an earlier era.
You could drop him in any city in the world and within a month, he’d have tons of friends and a pocket full of honest money.
He was smart, clever and fearless.
What other 18-year-old secures the post-flood clean-up contract for a major boat marina?
What other teenager bids on the debris removal contract at Harrods Landing to clear the gigantic wooden dam left after the spring flooding?
Only one I’ve ever met – John Powell.
As a teacher, you always wonder what kind of adults your students will become.
If your relationship has gone well, you always hope to run into them years down the road to catch up a bit on their lives.
Throughout the year, I often thought about the future and seeing John out on the river or at my boat marina.
I anticipated an easy friendship filled with his hilarious stories and endless laughter.
Now, we all have to settle for something far less.
When I’m out on the Ohio River, especially when I’m in a little jam, I’ll think of John. I wonder how he’d handle it.
I will always see him and feel his presence like a funny, smart, lovable river god watching over me and my loved ones.
And that helps a little bit.
Steve Rauh is a teacher at North Oldham High School. The views expressed in this column are those of the writer.