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The Unkindest Cut

December 29, 1985

Melissa Pressley is a fifth-grader at St. James, a private school in the fashionable Hancock Park area a few miles west of downtown Los Angles. Most, if not all, of her white classmates have been invited to participate in the Ebell Cotillion, a branch of the Los Angeles Cotillion.

No invitation arrived for Melissa, who is 10. She will miss the classes in ballroom dancing, etiquette and social graces, which are held after school. Most of her classmates are white. Melissa is black. Her parents believe that this alone explains the fact that she was not invited.

Cotillion organizers may have a legal right to decide who learns ballroom dancing and social graces. But they have exercised that right at a terrible cost to Melissa. Rejection hurts at any age. The pain is worse when it is inflicted on grounds that cannot be changed, no matter how hard a 10-year-old might try.

Melissa's parents say that she met the cotillion's standards for grades and conduct. The only explanation that she and her parents received was that she was "overlooked" in the invitation process. A likely story, in view of the fact that Christopher Sneed, another black student, was rejected last year.

The parents of both youngsters are challenging the cotillion decision. To his credit, the headmaster of St. James, the Rev. Charles Rowins, who could have dismissed the controversy as something outside the school and beyond his concern, has asked the cotillion president to sign a non-discrimination pledge.

Race and ethnicity are not the only criteria used to select some and reject others. Clumsy youngsters seldom make basketball teams, just as those who cannot carry a tune are not logical candidates for glee clubs. "The experience of not being included in everything is a fact of life," one of the cotillion's leaders told Times reporter Bob Baker.

In its cold nonchalance, that is true, even if, in Melissa's case, it is beside the real point. And when adults say such cold things about disappointment, 10-year-olds either do not understand at all or they understand better than the adults in ways that hurt all over.

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