Kindness, respect urged by speaker at Dutcher Middle School in Turlock

Mike Smith talks with seventh-grader Jake Melton, a short student who got jostled around by taller students Wednesday during Smith’s address.
Mike Smith talks with seventh-grader Jake Melton, a short student who got jostled around by taller students Wednesday during Smith’s address. naustin@modbee.com

Mike Smith spent junior high as a shrimp, picked on and angry. Today, he runs two international nonprofit groups and speaks to, by his count, a million kids a year about seizing their future.

Smith came from Nebraska to tell his story to Turlock students Wednesday, talking about his transition from lonely outcast to athlete to arrogant jerk, and the unflinchingly honest friend who changed his path.

“It made me want to do something. I want to make a change in the world,” said seventh-grader Christine Riggs after Smith’s assembly at Dutcher Middle School.

Students surging toward the outdoor stage for autographs said they were inspired. “He wanted to help homeless people, do something good,” Grace Rojas said.

“I liked that he talked about how people judge people by the way they look. You should get to know a person,” Abby Van Nieuwenhuyzen said.

“Care for other people, not just yourself,” was the message seventh-grader Frank Godinez heard.

“It’s motivating us to be more kind to other kids – and be more respectful,” said a shorter student standing on the edge of the crowd. Smith’s story of starting out small meant a lot to him, said seventh-grader Jake Melton as he moved closer to the front.

But his progress was short-lived as a boy easily two heads taller pushed in front of him with an aggressive, “I got here first.” As other tweens followed suit, the smaller boy fell back and sat, head leaning on his hand, alone on the stage step.

The push-out was the sort of behavior that school and community leaders had hoped to reduce with the assembly, splitting the $3,000 speaking fee between the school district and Prodigal Sons & Daughters addiction treatment center.

“It’s about bullying, but for us, it’s also about substance abuse. You get bullied, often drugs and alcohol are what they turn to, and the bullies, they’re just scared people,” said Mike Hibdon.

Smith – a skateboarder whose nonprofits include Skate for Change, which encourages skateboarders to give back to the homeless in their communities – never mentioned bullying in his presentation. He framed his story in terms of what happened and what he learned about valuing other people. “I try to make these assemblies something you can learn from,” he said before going on stage.

Smith told the junior high-schoolers of being a misfit fourth-grader who worked for six months to buy his first skateboard, only to have it stolen by bigger kids at the skate park, and starting out in a new town as a scrawny freshman. But he grew 10 inches and lifted weights to spend his sophomore year on the varsity football team.

“I got supercocky, supermean,” Smith said. He became one of those kids he hated. “Nobody fakes it more than teenagers. Nobody. You have this fake little online person you wish you were,” he said.

Smith’s dad got cancer. His grades were too low to get into college. But turning it around took finding Calvin, a freshman who had no use for a star athlete who was mean to people.

Smith eventually won over the younger teen, making him a school celebrity by simply insisting everyone be nice to Calvin. The shift in attitude changed the small school, he said. “I thought I was going to save Calvin. No way. That kid saved me. He made my high school a family,” Smith said. “He’s still my best friend.”

His advice for girls in the audience: Stop focusing on clothes and makeup. “Every single one of you girls is beautiful and capable,” Smith said. Boys, he warned, need to step up. “News flash. They’re saying 80 percent of you will walk out on your kids. Your kids will be the most fatherless generation ever,” he said.

“You want to be remembered as amazing?” he asked. Start now, “Build your legacy,” Smith said. “Nobody’s ever changed the world by being comfortable.”

After the assembly, Assistant Principal Laura Torres-Rogers said she’s seen Dutcher students go out of their way to help classmates with disabilities, arranging buddies for field trips and checking that they got on the right bus. “It was good for them to hear (that) it’s OK to take them under your wing,” she said.

“I love that he brought awareness to kids without disabilities, to care about all people,” said special-education teacher Mary Richards. “I loved that he told the girls, ‘You’re all beautiful.’ We’re doing a unit on peer pressure and self-esteem. It’s going to fit in well with that.”

Wednesday, Smith made a little time to help the self-esteem of one student. Alerted by an adult’s tug, Smith extricated himself from the crush, walked over and sat down beside Jake, talking with the boy quietly for a minute while impatient classmates gawked.

“Mike was the best presenter we’ve had in a long time. He connected with kids, he made them think and empathize and relate,” said Turlock Junior High teacher Jill Harlan-Gran after Smith’s presentation there. “My students came to class inspired and positive and eager to talk about how to make changes in their lives to be better people,” she said.