John Allen. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Meet the fourth of five Lake Highlands High School students to appear in our May 2017 issue about graduating seniors who, despite facing incredible obstacles are (to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s Hamilton), young, scrappy and hungry.

Stories that start out like John Allen’s don’t generally end well. He came from a big family who loved him, but he lacked stability and shouldered more responsibility by age 14 than many adults can handle. He has been thrust into crime-ridden environments, lost multiple family members to gun violence and illness, and been reported as “suspicious” when he was merely mowing lawns to help support his family. John is mostly stoic as he unravels his past. Born in South Dallas, he moved around, changing schools on a regular basis. And with every stint as the new kid came a dose of bullying.

Most of the time he lived in apartments, often in problem neighborhoods, where he and his brother would wait until the last possible minute to arrive at the bus stop in order to avoid harassment. At one point he, his mom and brother moved into a three-bedroom home on a nice East Dallas street. That is, “with about 13 other people,” he says. He is not exaggerating, he assures. There were siblings, aunts, uncles, kids, his mom and grandma.

Lake Highlands was the first place he could call home, he says, though things weren’t perfect here.

In junior high, he discovered football. He loved being part of the team. “I think I played a lot because I had good grades, not because I was the best football player,” he says with a hint of a smile.

But two of John’s family members died in quick succession. His aunt, who also was his mother’s best friend, died giving birth, leaving several children behind. Not long after that, his mom’s brother was shot in the head. That uncle lived some eight months, during which time he and John became close. They talked, bonded and attended church together; the elder was determined to change the lifestyle that led to the shooting. But doctors never could dislodge the bullet from his brain. John was 13 when his uncle died. His mother spiraled into depression over the losses.

John, too, was mourning. But he had little time to grieve. He filled the gaps, taking care of everything from grocery shopping to getting his siblings to school and doing laundry.

By all accounts, John was making heroic efforts for someone his age. In addition to the responsibilities at home, he made near-perfect grades and worked.

He says he regularly faced prejudice anyway.

One time, he recalls, he was wearing a coat that belonged to his estranged father.

“I missed him so much that I would wear his jacket and I guess it made me look a little older than I was.”

He thinks that is part of the reason a pair of bicycle police officers followed him down a residential street as he walked home from school, hollering. “Hey you, where are you going? What’s in that backpack?” They stopped him and patted him down, physically pushed him into a sitting position on the curb, searched his school bag and demanded identification. He produced his Lake Highlands Junior High student ID card.

Then there was the time, more recently, when he was working a landscaping gig — a task he completed on a hot summer evening, after two-a-day football practice, no less — and he had to carry his equipment home himself. It took two trips between the mower and edger and other gear. Embarking on his second trip, a police car hopped the curb, pulling in front of him on the sidewalk. An officer stepped out and began interrogating him. Once he told his story, the officer “was calm” and let him know that a “concerned homeowner” had called him in — “a suspicious person, disturbing the peace, something like that,” John says.

At a job from which he has since resigned, a manager accused John of stealing from the register. “I kind of waited for an apology after he found the ‘missing’ $80, but none came,” John says. When these things happen, John tends to go high rather than outwardly react.

At LHHS, John joined the wrestling team, a move that “really changed things,” he says. It would become a place to work out pent-up frustration, too.

He still played football, cashiered (at Albertson’s until it shuttered), mowed and volunteered on weekends, as required by one of his classes. He helped pay the bills at home and care for his siblings. He even rekindled some semblance of a relationship with his father.

But John lost another uncle, this time to cancer. And during the winter of sophomore year, his dad disappeared. After a period of mystery, John learned by happenstance that his father had been shot and did not tell anyone. John only found out because his grandmother’s friend was a nurse where John’s dad was a patient.

LHHS wrestling coaches such as Pete Grieder, who retired in 2016 after 32 years, pulled John from his rut with simple empathy and encouragement, John says.

The first important thing to John about wrestling is that he believes he is good. “I’ve played football and done other things; this was the first thing I ever felt I was good at,” he says.

Coach Kevin Wainscott calls John a “sort of gentle giant — so quiet on the sidelines, but in a match, this toughness comes out.”

The day John learned about his dad’s shooting, he wrestled in a tournament. As is typical, he did not talk about his troubles. Atypically, he lost his first match.

“Coach Grieder right away tells me he knows something is wrong,” John says.

“He said, ‘Just pick yourself up, John, and get through today.’ “

It was enough to motivate John, who decided to stop making excuses, he says, or feeling sorry for himself. He’s heard other voices out on the mat too, such as that of his deceased uncle, who, clear as day, said, “Keep fighting and push through.”

Read about all the other students we featured, here.