This story was corrected at 2:35 p.m. May 15, 2013.
There’s a lot that sets Bayard Miller apart from his peers: his high grades, his stellar test scores — and the time he spent kicking an alcohol addiction. At one time during his junior year, he was downing a fifth of vodka on some days.
It’s a story most kids still in high school wouldn’t tell. But Miller, an 18-year old senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, is not like most kids.
He used his experience as an alcoholic as the topic for one of his essays that earned him the distinguished honor of being named one of two U.S. Presidential Scholars from Maryland this year.
“I’m an alcoholic,” he said. “One of my essays was about [getting well] and my life after that. I think they were impressed that I left school for a month and maintained a 4.0 [grade point average].”
In that essay, Miller wrote: “The summer [before] junior year I started drinking alone. I loved being drunk and decided it was dumb that drinking alone was frowned upon by society. After all, Hemingway did it and he was successful. So I started buying half gallons of vodka for myself. Drinking alone at the age of 16 is bad under any circumstances, but my habit got much worse when I tore my shoulder playing football. The season ending injury gave me more free time and less reason for staying in shape, so I started drinking every night. On what was a normal Wednesday for me, I polished off a fifth of vodka. My parents found me stumbling drunk and took me to the hospital.”
“I took one look at him and knew he was drunk,” Miller’s mother, Caroline Adams Miller, said. “He had maybe a fifth of vodka that night. He really couldn’t make sense. It was really one of the worst nights of our life.”
Afraid that he may have had a stroke, Caroline Miller called an ambulance and had her son hospitalized.
It was the beginning of a monthlong journey to sobriety. A journey he knows will really last his whole life.
“Sobriety was tough initially,” he wrote in the last paragraph of his essay. “I felt like I was never going to be normal again, that I would always be on the fringe of society — but I was proven wrong. Nobody has stopped hanging out with me because of my situation. I understand that some people feel bad for me because of my alcoholism but I certainly don’t. I’ve learned to deal with emotions without hiding behind a drug and I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”
Miller’s parents and B-CC social studies teacher Tim Gilmore said they were amazed he kept up his grades while drinking so heavily.
On his Presidential Scholar questionnaire, Miller named Gilmore as a teacher who significantly influenced him.
Miller would get his alcohol by illegally buying it from a Washington liquor store and drank it alone in his room at night, his mother said.
“The remarkable thing to me was that he was able to get up the next day and go to school and get A’s,” his father, Haywood Miller, said.
Gilmore echoed that.
“I had no clue whatsoever,” Gilmore said. “His grades didn’t reflect it, his behavior didn’t reflect it. He’s a great kid. He’s very well spoken. He asks great questions. I know if he doesn’t get it, the other kids aren’t getting it as well.”
Gilmore said Miller missed some school after his shoulder injury, then was gone for some time. He did not know why.
“When his parents let us know, we were floored,” he said, speaking of the school staff. “With straight A’s and all his work in on time, the signs were not there. With someone who is struggling, you can ask [if he is having a problem].”
Caroline Miller said B-CC supported her son and sent work to him during the 30 days he was out of school working on his sobriety, so he would not fall behind.
“The most difficult time is junior year and right in the middle of it, he hit bottom,” she said. “But he was able to hold it together. I want to throw a lot of credit towards the school. They made the process work for Bayard. They bent over backwards to help him reintegrate.”
Bayard Miller said Gilmore was a big help when he went back to school.
“He came up to me and said, ‘Anytime you need to talk,’” Miller said.
Miller said he attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings two times a week and expects he might go more often when he starts college at the University of Pittsburgh in the fall, until he gets acclimated there.
Miller won a four-year scholarship for his tuition to Pitt, where he plans to study history and accounting.
He said he thinks most kids at school know he is an alcoholic and he is willing to talk to anyone who asks. It’s happened once or twice so far and he approached one person he thought smoked too much marijuana, he said. “I just told him, ‘That’s not good.’”
“Pretty much everybody I know drinks. Nobody pressures me,” he said. “In high school, the pressure [to drink] is not explicit. It’s more internal.”
Miller is scheduled to receive his Presidential Scholar Medallion during a ceremony June 16 in Washington. He will be honored along with Maryland’s female award winner, Marni Morse of Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville.
The U.S. Department of Education names just two students from each state — one boy and one girl — as Presidential Scholars each year.
Created in 1964, the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program has honored more than 6,000 of the nation’s top-performing students. The program was expanded in 1979 to recognize students who demonstrate exceptional talent in the visual, literary and performing arts.
As for now, Miller is finishing his senior year, enjoying proms and other festivities and planning a trip to Europe with his older sister. He said he is honored to win the Presidential Scholar award and knows it puts him in an exclusive club.
“It will be an experience I’ll never forget,” he said. “I’ll meet a bunch of interesting people. To win, you have to be pretty interesting.”
Editor’s note: This version recharacterizes Bayard Miller’s alcohol consumption.