City Lights: Friendly gestures go a long way in high school

As high school careers go, I had a fine one. And I sometimes wonder how much Greg, my old classmate, deserves credit for that.

Greg and I always got on well, but we were never close friends. We never hung out together outside of school. I couldn't tell you what he's doing now. Still, I remember the pleasant realization I felt midway through ninth grade that, yes, high school was going to be better than junior high, and in a small way, Greg may have helped with that transition.

I hated the seventh and eighth grades so much that I'll rush through describing them here. Suffice to say that if you were any combination of intellectual, nearsighted, thin and bad at sports, you know what I went through. I counted the minutes sometimes until the final bell rang. My school had a rotating schedule that dropped one class period per day, and I quietly exulted on any day without physical education.

By contrast, high school gym class felt like an improvement, which is a polite way of saying that my classmates didn't get into bat fights on the softball field. My athletic abilities, though, didn't endear me much to those who considered winning a third-period half-court game a crucial mark of achievement. As a result, when the teacher separated us into groups and allowed us to pick our own teams, I was routinely the last to slouch off the curb.

Greg, by contrast, was a pretty good basketball player — not Kobe Bryant by any means, but good for a ninth-grader who was a little taller and more agile than the rest. He had a deep voice (by ninth-grade standards) and an assured speaking manner (ditto), so when he assumed the role of captain for his team and began picking players, no one seemed to object.

One day, midway through first semester, Greg surprised our group by choosing me early in the draft. Someone gave him a perplexed look, and he shrugged and replied, "That guy always gets picked last." That day, I played as clumsily as ever, but when I shot a rare basket or intercepted a rare pass, Greg applauded and egged me on.

I ended up on Greg's team for most of the rest of freshman year. He didn't make me a better basketball player —100 John Woodens might not have accomplished that — but he made me feel like part of a group, which was a feeling I had sorely lacked for the previous two years.

I bring up this story in response to the latest spate of media articles about bullying and peer pressure in high school. Maybe "latest spate" is a meaningless term — there always seems to be a hard-luck story somewhere. Still, I haven't gotten over my tendency to be utterly incredulous, and my colleague Rhea Mahbubani's story about a documentary in the Newport Beach Film Festival left me in such a state.

The film Rhea described, "Mentor," is about a high school in Ohio that became the target of lawsuits after multiple students committed suicide apparently as a result of bullying. Of one such girl, Sladjana Vidovic, Rhea wrote:

"The slender, light-eyed brunette was mocked because of her appearance and Croatian accent, pelted with food and, at one point, even pushed down the stairs. Her tearful parents recalled that their child, 16, loved pink and was laid to rest in a sparkly dress and sandals that she'd purchased for the prom. The bullies who attended her 2008 wake laughed at Sladjana's body in the coffin, commenting later on MySpace that her clothes were ugly."

Now, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District is mired in a scandal over the Corona del Mar High School "prom draft," in which boys drew numbers to determine the order in which they could ask girls to the dance. Does this amount to objectification of females or just harmless fun? The jury is still out on that, but when the story hit page one of the Los Angeles Times, it included a quote from a district graduate who lamented girls' obsession with body image and opined, "Cheating, eating disorders, drafting people for prom — that's [a reflection of] a highly competitive nature."

OK, flashback time again. I had plenty of classmates who spoke in a variety of accents and never endured a shove down the stairs. With graduation near and Advanced Placement tests imminent, no one in my circle seemed to make a huge deal about who was taking whom to the prom. I said the same things after Columbine and any other school shooting you can name. The bottom line is that, in my memory, my high school didn't have a bullying problem.

That's not to say it didn't. Maybe it had a huge one in the classrooms next to mine. Maybe there was a girl I passed in the hall every day who endured ridicule over her voice, or a boy who pondered strychnine after all the taunts in the gym. Every student's path is different, and the school that I recall may be very different from the one in your memories, even if you attended the same campus at the same time I did.

There's often talk about ways adults can prevent bullying — federal legislation, district programs, guest speakers and the like. They're all noble ideas and worth trying, but I wonder how much impact they have. A student who harbors ill will toward smaller, gawkier and less athletic classmates is not likely to change his or her ways much after an assembly. And that may be where people like Greg can make a difference.

In the play and movie "Amadeus," the hack composer Salieri is hounded by one unsolvable mystery: why God, in his estimation, bestowed musical genius on the childish Mozart rather than on him. The high school equivalent of that problem is that some of us are granted different forms of "coolness" — tall stature, smooth delivery, stellar jump shot — that others go without. It's a natural response to view people with those gifts as leaders, despite lack of any other qualifications.

My message to any such kids is to remember the responsibility that comes with your status. When you speak, others listen; when you act, others follow. If the best player on the team makes a point of including the worst, that sets a tone for those in the middle. The prom queen who invites the Croatian immigrant to share her lunch table may, imperceptibly, save a life.

So, Greg, thank you for showing me that grace in the first few weeks of ninth grade. And thank you for not caring whether our team won or lost. As with so many things in adolescence, the world was not watching and keeping score.

MICHAEL MILLER is the features editor for Times Community News in Orange County. He can be reached at or (714) 966-4617.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World