Thousands of Abby Sunderlands in our midst

A brave teenager came to mind the other day. She is a 15-year-old girl who had served time for drugs and robbery, and had decided to shed her past and do well in school. But the streets were a constant danger. She told me, in her gentle voice, how afraid she was to leave her high school every day because of the gangs that prowled off campus. Her family had worked out a plan for her: Go to a relative's house nearby until her brother could pick her up and take her home.

Paradoxically, I thought of this girl, and other teenagers I met during a year of covering Locke, because of Abby Sunderland, the bold 16-year-old who plied the ocean, got herself into a sea of trouble and then was rescued as the world watched and fretted. Child experts and adventuring spirits took vehement positions on whether Abby was the offspring of a reckless and publicity-seeking family or a heroine who pointed out the error in our common wisdom that children should be inoculated against every hazard. But the stories of the Locke High School teenagers give us a third way to look at this: Abby Shmabby.

Oh, sure, I appreciate her fearlessness, or ability to overcome fear. At the same time, I despair of the foolishness that sends a young person out to sea alone knowing that the timing of her departure will bring her to the south Indian Ocean at a particularly treacherous time.

But mostly, I wonder about the nature of actions that grab our collective attention, and those that go ignored.

Dangerous as it is to attempt a solo circumnavigation of the globe, thousands of teenagers in Southern California have their own extraordinary tales of grit. They conquer their fears and losses, and muster the determination and maturity to navigate neighborhoods as fearsome as 20-foot waves to get to school. They stick with their studies even when they're sailing solo in their pursuit of excellence. And no one races to their rescue when trouble hits.

Say what you will about Abby's parents, they buoyed her with support of every kind. A super-safe boat with special watertight compartments, various emergency beacons, drysuit, you name it. They made sure she had oodles of coaching, family-taught skills and adult-led supervision so she could tackle those dangers. They were even prepared for the dangerous shoals of a possible reality show. And when Abby got in trouble on the seas, the world came to her rescue.

The world doesn't galvanize for that kind of rescue in neighborhoods where children have trouble getting to school safely because each block on the way is controlled by a different gang. They go to campuses that usually aren't set up for their success. Some have supportive families that try to guide them, but others don't. Some don't have families at all; more than 20 percent of Locke students are in the foster-care system. Many don't even get enough to eat. Yet some of them push themselves every day to go to school, to try for a better future.

I met a lot of kids like that at Locke.

One senior told me about how much he was looking forward to attending George Washington University, where he'd been accepted after racking up an impressive list of Advanced Placement courses. Reaching that lofty place took years of planning that included plotting a safe route to school, past the different gang factions.

Then there was the girl who showed up every day even though she was preoccupied with fears about her home life. Her only relative was a grandmother who was well into her 80s and beginning to ail; she worried constantly about what would happen if her grandmother died. One boy had parents who paid so little attention to his schooling that he had collected only eight of the 23 credits he was supposed to have by age 17. But then he re-committed himself to his studies and became a devotee of Chaucer.

And there was the young man who had missed so many classes, lured by his friends on the street, that by the middle of senior year, he was miles short of graduation. He dropped out, but changed his mind months later, returning to school the next fall and enrolling in online classes where students could study as hard and collect credits as quickly as they chose. He found he had a penchant for philosophy, put in extra time at school and earned his diploma well before the end of the school year.

Abby asked to take on her sailing obstacles; these kids didn't. With Abby reaching home and the hubbub about her — wunderkind or publicity junkie? — rising again, it's a good time to spare some attention for kids who don't have parents to underwrite their dreams. Not that I'm looking to denigrate the skills and moxie required to take on Abby's impressive outing. I just wish that we as a society were better at noticing and admiring the teenagers who pull off equally daunting and praiseworthy feats every day, in our midst.

Karin Klein is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times; e-mail:

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