The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday May 31st

Don't Trust Preconceived Notions

He's a student here at Carolina. He's modest, refusing me permission to use his real name. For convenience, let's call him "Johnny Doe." Don't let the alias fool ya though ... he's anything but your typical college dude.

Upon first glance, you probably wouldn't think Mr. Doe was that spectacular. He's pretty average looking (although his sense of style is fierce). When I first met him, I figured he was just one of the good ol' Carolina kids. You know the type -- a steady flow of cash in the bank from mum and dad, a party-hard bitching 'tude about life in general and some sort of sick obsession with Tar Heel sports.

Ah, one of the first lessons I learned from Johnny: Preconceived notions about our peers should never be trusted. Give people the benefit of the doubt rather than judging them before you've even said "hello." But let's get back to Johnny himself.

He smiles a lot. Johnny takes time to stroll across campus rather than race from class to class. When I started getting to know him better, I wondered what reason he had to be so jolly.

One day I asked about his parents. He laughed and said his family story could fuel the plot of some twisted television movie of the week. I was shocked by some of the stuff he told me.

Johnny's had it rough. His father was very abusive to him and the rest of his family. As a little boy, Johnny once stood in front of his father's gun so that he could block the bullet from hitting his mother -- just in case his dad actually pulled the trigger this time.

The earliest family memory Johnny harvests involves extreme violence. When he was about 3 years old, he remembers standing over his mother's body, wondering if she was going to be OK. His father had struck his wife, knocking her unconscious. He then poked around the fireplace, telling his children about Hell.

Johnny's childhood was filled with guns, broken noses and late-night escapes to the police department. So his father didn't have to explain anything about Hell. Johnny lived it.

"So you must be in some massive therapy, right?" I asked Johnny once.

And he smiled, telling me that he did seek help at one point in his life. He said he had a hard time coming to Chapel Hill and leaving his mother and siblings behind. Johnny felt guilty for escaping the torment. He started having anxiety attacks. At times, Johnny cut his arms. He said it helped him break out of the attacks.

He eventually found better ways of dealing with the attacks and preventing them altogether. He's not ashamed of any part of his past. Sometimes, though, Johnny does feel a little out of place at Carolina. Unlike most students, he can't call up mum and dad when money's tight. He makes his own way.

But Johnny's not jealous of the more typical Carolina student. He says we're all born under different circumstances -- that we all have our individual battles to work through. And rather than dwelling on all the negative aspects of his childhood, he chooses to see the positive side.

"If I'd never experienced such extremities growing up, how could I understand someone who did?" he asked.

"Yeah, but what reason is there to smile so much? Don't you sometimes just want to strangle someone? Like one of these Carolina brats who has it made and doesn't have to worry about a damn thing?"

"Why assume that someone with a cellular phone and Abercrombie outfit doesn't have anything to worry about? You assume too much. We all do," he said. "I don't think I'm really that different from anyone else. We all want the same things. Yet, we look at each other in terms of black or white, poor or rich, gay or straight."

Johnny genuinely believes in the good of all people. I find this a little hard to swallow, for there are more than a handful of straight-up cruel individuals out there. But Johnny would argue that everyone has something positive to contribute.

He'd even say the vilest of individuals deserves at least a little compassion. Johnny sees criminals and pictures broken childhoods. And I'm sure he's got a point.

Johnny has hope that anyone can rise above his or her flaws and enjoy life more completely. He accuses me of not smiling enough. He warns me that time is fleeting and I should never have to look back and regret not enjoying things more.

And I remind him of what a crazy cheese-head he is.

What's the deal with such a positive outlook from a guy who's had it so rough anyway?

Even if he had the best of childhoods, I would still have a hard time buying his fluffy idealism.

But if Johnny's capable of such high hopes and expectations, surely I can be as well. Maybe he's really on to something.

So Johnny, I know your cheeks are quite rosy by now. But thanks for being so atypical. Thanks for sharing your story and making me believe that everything, good and bad, happens for a reason.

And thanks for giving me such a fresh perspective with a smile.

Cameron Mitchell is a junior journalism and mass communication major. Make him smile by sending your deepest thoughts and concerns to

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