“Excuse me, boys,” boomed a voice from behind John and me as a heavy hand fell on each of our shoulders, “but I think you’ve got something that doesn’t belong to you.”
I was too stunned to speak, but my friend John wasn’t.
“Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” he said as he wrenched his shoulder free and turned to face the man who had addressed us so suddenly. “We didn’t do anything. Who are you anyway?”
The man’s face turned red. “I’m Mr. Kennard, the manager of that store you just left,” he said. “And I watched you steal those candy bars.”
Steal? Candy bars? I looked at John. He didn’t even blink as he continued to argue.
“What do you mean? Hey, man, I just bought these.”
“Now look, son, I saw you take those bars and stuff them into your jacket pocket. Then I watched you as you left my store, without paying, and met your accomplice out here.
“And you,” he said, looking at me, “are just as guilty. I saw you reach for the candy bar as soon as this kid left the store. Even though you didn’t steal it, you’re just as guilty for letting him do the dirty work and then sharing what he stole.”
His words shocked me. “Wait a minute. I didn’t do anything.”
Mr. Kennard smirked, “That’s your buddy’s line.”
“No, really, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t know he was going to steal anything.” I explained to Mr. Kennard how John had told me he still had a dollar left in his wallet and asked me to wait outside while he ran into the store to get us something to eat.
He didn’t believe me. “Look,” he said, “I don’t have all day to play games with a couple of junior high shoplifters. What are your names?”
He wrote down our names and made us come back inside the store while he called our parents. I was angry—angry at being wrongly accused of shoplifting and angry at John for stealing and getting me caught in the whole mess.
“Sorry,” John mumbled as we sat in Mr. Kennard’s office.
“Yeah, not nearly as sorry as I am.”
“No, really, Chris, I’m sorry. I didn’t think I’d get caught. I’ve never been caught before.”
“Look, I don’t want to talk about it. Just drop it, okay?” We sat in silence until our parents picked us up.
When Dad and I were finally alone in the car, I blurted out the whole story.
As we drove away from the shopping center, he said, “I believe you, son, but you can’t blame Mr. Kennard for not believing you. You have to admit, you must have looked pretty guilty. It’s a case where you’re guilty by association. You’ve heard me say before that you’re judged by the company you keep, haven’t you? Well, today you looked like a shoplifter because you were with one.”
In the weeks and years since the shoplifting incident, I’ve thought about what Dad said, about being judged by the company I keep. Hanging around with John didn’t do me any good at all. But I did learn the importance of having the right kind of friends. Fortunately, I’ve had many other friends, good friends, who made me good by association.
Two of my good friends were my older brothers, Mike and Bill. They never minded having me tag along when they went to play basketball, baseball, or football, and if their friends didn’t want me to play, Mike and Bill wouldn’t play either. Playing sports with my brothers and their friends was hard because I was younger than they were, but it paid off in the long run. I always had to work harder to compete with them, but that extra effort made me a better athlete. By the time I was in high school, I was ahead of most guys my age, and that edge later helped me earn an athletic scholarship that paid my way through college.
Jerry was another guy who helped me shape up properly. He managed the health spa where my brothers and I used to do our weight lifting, and he often joined our workouts.
Jerry was no scrawny high school kid. He was a mountain of muscle. Any weight I could lift barely once, Jerry could easily lift ten times. I hated it and loved it when Jerry worked out with us. I hated it because he wouldn’t let us rest or loaf.
“One more! C’mon, you can do one more rep,” he’d yell when I was ready to rack the weights. “Don’t give up now. You can do it.” Then he’d stand over me as I grunted and strained to produce one more repetition. “Atta boy. I knew you could do it.”
I hated the hard work, but I loved the encouragement and motivation he added to our workouts. Jerry squeezed out the best in me, and I always made my best lifts when he was around.
In high school, Walt and Liz had the greatest influence on me. I wasn’t LDS when I was a high school student, but I was a serious athlete. And because I took sports seriously, I didn’t drink, smoke, or use drugs. Neither did any of my friends, until our sophomore year. Suddenly, the guys I used to play basketball with on weekends were spending their weekends getting drunk at parties. I went to a few of the parties, but I didn’t like what I saw, so I stopped hanging around with my old friends.
That’s when I really got to know my Mormon buddy, Walt. He made it easy for me to be good because I knew he didn’t drink or smoke, so I never felt any pressure to either. If anything, Walt pressured me to keep living what he called “The Word of Wisdom” and also to shape up in other ways.
Walt didn’t swear, and he was always correcting me when I did. He was polite and well mannered (most of the time), and when I was around him, I felt I should try to act a little better myself. He was a serious athlete, as I was, but he also took his studies just as seriously. He studied hard and got good grades (something I did only occasionally). Being friends with Walt didn’t make me perfect, but it showed me how I could improve.
Of course, Walt also put a little friendly peer pressure on me about his church. “Hey, Chris,” he’d say, “you might as well be a Mormon—you don’t drink, smoke, or use drugs. You’re practically a Mormon anyway.” As we became better friends, we talked about his church a lot, and I started to meet other LDS kids.
One of them was Walt’s girlfriend, Liz. She was an attractive, cheerful Mormon girl whom I used to tease unmercifully. Liz was the perfect lady, and as we got to know each other better, her good influence began to change me. I stopped swearing. I started opening doors for girls. And, most important of all, I became interested in the Church.
It wasn’t easy for me, a Catholic, to consider changing my religion, but good friends like Walt and Liz made it easier for me to investigate the Church. Liz encouraged me to seek out the truth and to do what was right. And when I had gained a testimony, she and Walt gave me the strength and courage I needed to go through with my decision to get baptized.
I know much has been said about how bad peer pressure can be, and it can be awfully bad. But when I look back on the friends I’ve enjoyed associating with, I’d say that peer pressure can be awfully good too. My friends have helped me to become a better person than I would have been without them.
A woman I know has a placard on her desk that says, “You can’t soar with eagles when you hang around with turkeys.” It’s true. None of us can help being influenced by our friends, and that’s why it’s important to associate with people who build us up rather than drag us down. Peer pressure isn’t so bad, especially if you’ve got friends like Mike, Bill, Jerry, Walt, and Liz.