‘J-One’: A Sad Story
By RALPH HARDIN
Evening Times Editor
cool part of being in the education field is getting to see your former students grow up and become adults. Some of my former students from my teaching days are now doctors, lawyers, teachers, soldiers and a wide variety of other occupations.
My wife recently began her third decade in the world of public schools. She’s now an assistant principal, but for 20 years, she was a classroom teacher. Her first teaching job was teaching 7th grade English at West Junior High. Early into her first or second year, she came home telling me about one of her students. This was not unusual, as she would often tell me about the kids in her classes, good and bad, and as I was soon to be entering the teaching world as well, I enjoyed getting a sneak peek of what to expect.
This particular student was a bit of a bad boy. His name was Justus Won Smith, but as he had told her as she attempted to get him to listen up and act right in class, you could just call him “J-One.”
His name came up a few times that school year, and never in a good story. A few years went by and in 2004, I was starting my student teaching intern semester, teaching History at West Memphis High School with the late, great Chris Lee as my cooperating teacher. Mr. Lee was very supportive of my efforts and largely let me teach what I wanted to teach how I wanted to teach it.
Well, one day, well into the semester mind you, I get a new student in my 7th period World History class, and lo and behold, if it isn’t a certain Justus Won Smith. I let him know that I would be happy to call him “J-One,” and that I felt like I had already met him.
He seemed pretty unimpressed with that bit of trivia, and in fact he was pretty unimpressed with anything going on in Mr. Lee’s classroom. I did have to send him out a few times, but I think he did end up passing the semester. I don’t know what happened the next semester, as I had graduated from college and was hired at Marion High School.
As they do, the years go by, and life happens. I ended up leaving teaching in 2009 and in 2010, I started at the Times. In 2014, I became Editor. Part of that job includes getting the mug shots from the Crittenden County Jail for the “You’re Under Arrest” section of the paper. One day, I caught a familiar name. Had he been John Smith or Sam Brown, I might not have even noticed, but it was, in fact, “Smith, Justus One.”
I told my wife that her fears that he would one day find himself on the wrong side of the law had come true. It was for a drug charge of some kind. A few months later, he popped up again for another drug charge. And so it happened, J-One’s mug shot would come across on the arrests. Eventually, the charges began to escalate. I was actually wondering how he kept getting out of jail, given the nature of some of those charges, but I know the legal system isn’t really ideal sometimes.
In the 16 years between the time I had him in my History class and today, I think he’d been arrested a dozen times. Now, I won’t claim to know much about what his life’s circumstances were over the course of the last 16 years, so I can’t speak to what kind of life he was living, but clearly he had made some bad decisions.
Well, a few weeks ago, I was scrolling through Facebook and I came across a Missing Person report on the West Memphis Police Department’s page, and it was, as you’ve probably already figured out, for Justice One Smith, now in his 30s. It’s crazy to think of that skinny little kid as a 30-something-year-old man now (in fact in the photo, he’s holding a small child).
Now he was missing, not seen since early January. Sure, he could have just run off somewhere (he was actually out on release from jail at the time of his disappearance). Bur sometimes, you just get a feeling, and I had a feeling that J-One had run afoul of the wrong people or found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As I’m sure you’ve probably already seen, Justus Smith was identified as the body found last week by the West Memphis Airport. It’s a sad story, but far from a unique one. Right now, there are dozens of potential J-Ones here in our community. I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead, because I know he had friends and family and loved ones. So, instead, I’d like to make a plea to the community: Help these kids. Be a positive presence in their lives. Let’s do whatever we can to make Justus Smith’s story the last one like it we have to report in the newspaper. For our children. For our future.