The peanut butter and jam sandwich he’d just bit into got stuck in his throat as Jeremy Grace watched Tori, a fellow student at London Central High School in Ontario, Canada, shuffle towards him down the science hallway.
Jeremy swallowed hard, his pulse rising as he stepped into Tori’s path while his friends watched.
“Hey, high-five,” he said, holding up his hand. Jeremy wasn’t usually the type to intervene, or even to give high-fives, but something about the look on Tori’s face changed him.
Tori looked confused, then she smacked her palm against his. She smiled. Then Jeremy smiled.
She walked away, and Jeremy sat back down.
“You should do that every day,” one of Jeremy’s friends joked.
Jeremy now averages 300 high-fives per day as part of The Up High Movement, his campaign to spread positivity throughout the school. To achieve the mission of “spreading positivity,” Jeremy spends 45 minutes out of his 50-minute lunch period pushing his walker through the fluorescent-lit hallways of the high school while giving high-fives to everyone he passes. His arms get tired, so he switches hands frequently, resting the unused one on his walker, which he uses to steady himself.
It’s worth it, he says, to quickly scarf down his peanut butter and jam sandwich. The high-fives make people happy, and, because it’s been over a year since he started his lunchtime ritual, people expect them.
But Jeremy is graduating in a few weeks. Now, he is trying to figure out what will happen to The Up High Movement once he’s gone, and what his identity will be once he’s no longer known as “the high-five guy.” After all he’s been through, Jeremy doesn’t want to leave anyone hanging.
To be a student in high school is to hear the sound of lockers slamming, papers rustling, and the small voice inside your head that whispers, “You are not enough.”
The voice convinces you that you’re not as built as the quarterback, not as pretty as the lead in the school musical, and not as popular as the kid who got 248 favorites on a tweet he sent out last night.
Jeremy knows this nagging voice well. He has tried to shut it out by escaping into the world of horror films, but that distraction only works until the credits roll. The world he must live in is his own.
To make his world brighter, he gives high-fives. Every day at 10:55 a.m., when what he calls the “earliest lunch ever” starts, he stands by the elevator, his thin freckled arms gripping his walker. Once a group of students rush past, he reaches out his hand, which slaps the hands of his classmates. They mechanically stick out their arms as they think about how they did on their math tests or what they’re having for lunch. All the while, Jeremy smiles, a silver retainer gleaming in the school’s fluorescent lights, the faces of his classmates reflected in his black-framed glasses.
After the rush disperses, he squeezes sanitizer on his hands and wrings them out. He said he goes through a bottle a week, which gets expensive. Positivity, it appears, costs $10 per month.
Once his hands are 99.9 percent germ-free, he takes the elevator up to the top floor of the school. He pushes his walker down the hallway, slapping hands and squeezing hand sanitizer, then heads to the middle floor, then the basement, all in an effort to high-five as many people as possible.
At this point, Jeremy’s high-fives are a given. But on that first March day, as he continued to high-five people, some of his classmates looked confused and ducked under his arm. Others smiled and gave him enthusiastic slaps back, which were enough to encourage him that, no, this wasn’t too weird, and he should keep trying to cheer people up.
Jeremy was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was a year old.
Although CP impacts his motor skills, and he needs to use a walker to get around, Jeremy says he’s never been bullied. He does, however, know what it’s like to be left out.
When he was younger, he couldn’t navigate the playground during outdoor recess. He couldn’t join football or baseball teams. And, instead of running around outside in the summer, he spent much of his time going back and forth to doctor appointments, physical therapies, and to the hospital. Most of his time was spent with adults, which made it hard to bond with kids his age.
Jeremy didn’t want the Up High Movement, which a friend named because it fit with the motion of the high-five, but also the intent behind it, which was to promote positivity, to be unlike football or baseball had been for him: something that excluded people. Jeremy had never been in charge of anything before. He knew he wanted to make a difference, and his friends told him he was doing a good thing, but the “movement” was his alone.
He is the only one who gives out high-fives. Sure, other people could give him a slap back, but there wouldn’t be a point if he were the only person behind the cause. He would still be standing alone.
Jeremy began planning to grow the high-five chain into something bigger than the halls of Central. He and his friends decided Jeremy should try to break the world record for most high-fives in a 24-hour period — 14,607 — which was set by Pete Timbs in Australia in 2012. But to do so, he would need thousands of people to high-five. He would need publicity. He would need someone with the power to draw a large audience to cheer him on. He decided to reach out to Ellen DeGeneres.
Unlike some other school organizations, the Up High Movement isn’t exactly something students join as a resume-builder. It’s hard to quantify happiness, and the meetings are so informal that there isn’t a huge time commitment.
Annie Tsui, a Central student, asked Jeremy what he was doing after she was on the receiving end of a high-five last year. Once she heard about how Jeremy was trying to spread positivity, she wanted to be part of it.
“I have done much charity work, but volunteering with the Up High Movement has been an incredible experience,” she said. “You witness first-hand the effect, rather than vaguely seeing an outcome, you get a reaction right away. It brightens your day when you see Jeremy down the hall readying his high-five for you.”
His classmates seem eager to defend The Up High Movement. They want to support a kid who’s doing something to improve the mood at school, even if the happiness he’s creating might seem forced. More than a year later, the high-fives are a given, and some might say the novelty has worn off.
But no one wants to be the kid who says the Up High Movement isn’t working.
No kid wants to be the one who doesn’t stick his hand out. No one wants to be the one who says that even though the high-fives are a nice gesture, they don’t fix everything.
Jeremy’s just hoping that they’ll fix something. That’s why, even on the days when he can’t be at school, he posts a high-fiving selfie on his Facebook page. In the frame, he’s a face, a smile, and a hand. He’s the image he tries to be in real life.
Because the Up High Movement, which has a budget of zero dollars, runs on enthusiasm and good will, Jeremy and the group’s 16 regular members promote their cause using tools that are readily available. They organized a “tweet happiness day,” where they encouraged people to tweet at Ellen to tell her about the Up High Movement.
Ellen’s twitter account has 43 million followers, and she gets thousands of mentions a day. Even if all 1,000 Central students tweeted at her constantly, it’s unlikely she would see their messages. But they decided to try anyway.
At this point, Jeremy felt as if being on Ellen was the only way to measure success. “If we got on Ellen, it means we achieved what we set out to do,” he said.
Tweet Happiness Day came and went. She didn’t tweet back.
We are both the people we are online and offline, but in high school, there’s even more of a sense of trying to figure out what each of those identities mean.
All of that trying to be someone, to get a moment’s recognition, whether on social media or in person, can be overwhelming. Being only a part of the person you know you’re meant to be can make you feel like no one.
“Our school was and is very conservative,” said Rachel Buchanan, who was one of the founding members of the UHM. “People wish to keep to their small groups, that’s just normal for Central Secondary. But Jeremy has turned that outlook right around. People love high-fiving Jeremy. It’s become part of a daily routine for most of the students and staff at Central. It’s something that everyone can look forward to.”
But, as innocent as the high-five might seem, there are certain people who aren’t into it.
“Sometimes it can be easier to show appreciation, or even negativity, when you have the anonymity of a screen,” Jeremy said. “There are people who I know don’t like what I do for whatever reason, but they’ll just walk around me. On social media, they can say things like ‘I hate you.’ No one would say that out loud, but certain people definitely don’t participate. I just try to focus on the ones that do, because I think everyone wants to be acknowledged in some way.”
It was in realizing that everyone shares the desire for recognition that The Up High Movement became something more. After the Ellen campaign didn’t work, Jeremy decided to use his platform to promote mental health. He began Facebook messaging and tweeting at mental health awareness organizations, such as Kids Help Phone, to raise awareness for his own campaign.
He knows high-fives can’t cure depression, but he also knows signs of recognition, and the feeling that you aren’t alone, can make the world seem less dark.
Students seem to relate to his high-fives more. Adults won’t usually high-five Jeremy back (he’s tried at the mall and the grocery store and says people just look at him), but they are eager to give him awards for his efforts.
In the past year, he’s received the Beyond Disability Award and was recognized as a community hero at the Community Living London 2015 Night of Heroes. The incoming mayor of London, Ontario invited him to give high-fives at the inaugural city council meeting to kick off a positive term. He’s told his story to local media outlets and has spoken to 8,100 students in grades 5–8 at the “Be A Champ” event at Budweiser Gardens in London to try to show them that something as small as a high-five can make a difference.
“In school, I was never super involved, but through the high-fives, I started to become more well-known,” he says. “It forced me into the position of being a leader, and now I’m known as ‘this guy.’ I guess I’ve always known that you have to adapt to what’s thrown at you.”
Jeremy tells most people he doesn’t know why he gave Tori a high-five. That’s not entirely true.
When he thinks about it, Jeremy blushes slightly and takes a deep breath. He says he was inspired by his own pain, one he seldom talks about. Jeremy had a friend who still goes to Central, and they were so close they were like brothers. For years, he was Jeremy’s only close friend. They hung out after school and had dinners at each other’s houses.
Then, the friend went away on a trip for a year. “I know this is going to sound sad, but I really don’t mean it to,” Jeremy says. “I was so lonely when he was gone. I had no one to hang out with.”
To fill the void, Jeremy began Facebook messaging his friend in a way that he now says was obsessive. “I didn’t mean for it to be as creepy as it became,” he says. “I was just really longing for a friend.”
When his friend came back, he didn’t seem interested in hanging out anymore. Jeremy had held out hope things would get better once he returned, but, instead felt the void of losing a brother. And he had no idea why.
He tried calling his house, sending more Facebook messages and having mutual friends try to talk to him to apologize, but, inadvertently came off as “creepy” in doing so. The only reason he was able to move on, he says, was by spending hours texting and Facebook messaging a friend who goes to another school.
“When I high-fived Tori on that day, it was near the end of my depressed state, and I decided I didn’t want anyone else to feel as horrible or as sad as I felt, so I high-fived her,” Jeremy says. “And the rest is history.”
Jeremy has never been bullied, but he does know how it feels to be lonely. He does know how it feels to have his pulse quicken as he prepares to turn a corner in the hallway, unsure if the people he’s known since kindergarten, the ones he’s watched grow up and take on glasses, braces and acne, will turn away from him.
On the second tweet happiness day, which happened May 6 of this year, no one tweeted at Ellen.
“Looking back on it, I was rather arrogant,” he said. “I’m still arrogant. But to say ‘let’s show Ellen how great I am.’ That was, well, not great. Ellen isn’t the main goal anymore, she’s more of a side goal if anything. So, with this one, we decided to have people tweet what makes them happy instead of about me.”
Jeremy’s hoping that the positivity will last when he leaves Central. He doesn’t have a successor lined up, but he hopes the intention of the UHM will remain.
“I know high-fives aren’t going to solve all problems,” he said. “But if that action makes them happier, then my job is done.”
When you think about what a high-five is, he said, it’s an encouragement. It’s an action that says “good job.”
It sounds lame, he says, but he likes to congratulate people on being themselves and on getting through another day. He hopes they’ll remember that living from one day to the next, no matter the obstacles, is a success.
And he won’t be far. In the fall, Jeremy will begin a joint media studied program at Western University and Fanshawe College, both in London, Ontario. He said the walker makes it hard for him to go far away to school, but also said he won’t mind having someone to do his laundry and make him homemade meals. He’ll also try to high-five at college and see how it goes.
College, he said, seems like a stressful place where people need positivity. He speaks of university as a still-mythical place that’s always been a goal for the future, not a reality that’s only a few months away. He knows it’ll be difficult, but he’s hopeful he can make a difference there, too. If not, he’s graduating knowing that he left his mark on the hands of his classmates at Central.
“Maybe the vice principal will let me come back occasionally at lunchtime,” he said. “Not every day, of course, because I’ll have to move on. But maybe sometimes.”
For the next few days, he’s going to keep giving high-fives, even though there will be no broken high-five record. There will be no Ellen. But, because of the Up High Movement, there will be no one left hanging.