Story by Julian Hanlon-Austin
Photos by Jonathan Schell
As Liz Mahlum steps in front of the freshman English class, she towers over the students. In the wake of the Grant High School hazing incident, Mahlum and the other counselors had to go to classrooms to talk to students about the problem.
“How do things like bullying make you guys feel?” asks Mahlum, who stands 6-foot-2. She has a serious but welcoming look on her face.
“It feels like telling on someone is seen as the bad thing,” says a small freshman.
“Telling is not the problem,” Mahlum replies. “The problem is what’s going on in the situation.”
Mahlum is born a problem solver. She loves teenagers, sets high standards for them and offers advice at the right time. Students tend to seek her out because she is able to deeply relate to many situations like bullying, having experienced them herself.
Her approach at Grant High School is part disciplinarian, part mother hen. Her goal for the students she works with? By the time every student graduates, they will have the confidence in what their future holds for them.
With her height, it’s hard to miss Mahlum when she hits the halls in search of students. “I’m so comfortable with who I am, with my height, and with what I do,” she says. But it wasn’t always seen as a plus.
Mahlum was born Elizabeth Wilkinson in Vancouver, Wash., on Feb. 12, 1975, the third of four girls. Her father was a lawyer and her mother worked as a medical assistant. They moved a few times before settling in Springfield.
Her mother, Julie Wilkinson, remembers how caring and loving her daughter has always been. “She would always put others’ needs in front of her own, no matter what,” Wilkinson recalls. “She’s helped me out of many situations before.”
Says Mahlum’s oldest sister Wendy Wilkinson: “She’s always there for me.”
As a kid, the young Wilkinson was ridiculed and picked on because of her height. By the time she was 10, she was already 5-foot-8. It was tough for her to establish any core group of friends after moving and being made fun of so much. But she never let the taunting and teasing get to her. Instead, she used it as fire. She soon discovered basketball, which would become her outlet.
At first, she wasn’t confident in her skills. But she practiced hard and got better. Although she did her best to ignore the taunting about her height, it never went away. As she moved into AAU basketball, parents from the other teams always complained about her, saying she had to be older than she was because of her height. So her parents always made it a habit to bring Liz’s birth certificate to all her games.
Mahlum remembers a time when she lost control in the middle of the game. She had been playing well but the other team’s parents were chanting at her.
“I just couldn’t hold it in anymore,” she remembers. “I mouthed (expletive) to the crowd. But it was really a turning point for me. I learned that in order to be the best, I had to roll with the punches.”
By the time high school rolled around, the teenager was one of the elite freshmen in Oregon. But even then she could not escape being made fun of for her height. Julie Wilkinson still remembers how often people would stop her on the street and ask her how tall her daughter was. “It was just so rude and inconsiderate to do to a kid,” Wilkinson says.
Throughout high school, she performed in the classroom, as well. She didn’t just hang out with athletes; she was also involved in other social groups. Sometimes she would be with her smart friends and sometimes she would find herself with the popular jocks. “I never really fit in to any specific clique,” she recalls. “But I liked where I was with everyone.”
Her dedication to basketball paid off as she was recruited by multiple Division I schools. But after one of her first visits, the kid from Springfield had found her college home: St. Mary’s of California.
She saw it as a chance to get a fresh start. “Everyone was new, so it was like completely starting over socially,” she recalls. “It was easier to talk to people and make friends.”
During her sophomore year, she met the center of the St. Mary’s football team, Adam Mahlum. “It was love at first sight, for me at least,” he says.
Unfortunately for him, Liz Wilkinson thought his name was Chad for an entire year.
It took some work and some luck for Adam Mahlum to find her. She had told her mother to always tell him she wasn’t home when he called. But her father, Doug, was unaware of the situation and accidentally informed Adam Mahlum of her whereabouts.
When she finally decided to go out with him, she had a great time. “Believe it or not, we played one on one basketball on one of our first dates,” Adam Mahlum recalls. “I won.”
After college, she worked for Enterprise Rent-A-Car in an internship program. She was excited about the opportunity but soon realized she did not want to do that for the rest of her life.
Around the same time, her parents were deciding they no longer wanted to support her all the way in California, so she and Adam Mahlum moved to Oregon together. Adam got a job as a teacher and she began to work for Old Navy as a hiring manager.
Eventually, she grew tired of the daily grind. She realized that the only part of her job that she loved was working with teenagers.
So when Adam presented the idea of her shadowing one of the counselors at his high school, she jumped all over it. “Seeing how much they got to just sit down and work with the students looked so great,” she says. “I wasn’t satisfied professionally. There was just something missing for me.”
On Aug. 7, 1999, the couple married. Liz Mahlum decided she wanted to be a counselor and enrolled in graduate school at Lewis and Clark. “It was very natural for me to be back in the classroom,” she says. “I love school and if I could get paid for sitting around reading books I would.”
After graduation, was nervous about whether she would be able to find a job. Portland Public Schools again were facing serious cuts. But after filling out the application, Mahlum found Grant.
During an interview, she met then-Principal Toni Hunter. She remembers Hunter saying to her: “I didn’t expect to like you as much as I did. I already knew who I was going to hire, but there might be a spot opening up and it’s all yours.”
Mahlum was torn. She didn’t feel like she could wait to see if the job materialized. So she looked elsewhere.
The Mahlums took a trip to Mexico, but they didn’t have cell service for a while. When she saw that she got a signal toward the end of the trip, she saw that she had multiple messages from Hunter. The job was hers.
During her first couple years at Grant, Mahlum was completely overwhelmed. With a new caseload of nearly 400 students and being new, she had no clue how to run things. Soon, though, she worked out how to handle students. “Grant was just so big,” she says. “It took time for me to find my place here.”
Today, Mahlum lives in Scappoose with her husband and twin daughters, Elissa and Kameron. Life with twins can be a handful, but they enjoy it. With a confident and kind mother and a funny, easy-going dad, the girls are in good hands.
“I call my parents a lot for help with my own kids,” Mahlum says with a smile. “They did such a great job with me that I need them for advice.”
Mahlum’s role in her extended family remains the same: the organizer who gets stuff done. “Every time I’ve ever needed anything, she has always been there,” says Wendy Wilkinson, “No matter what’s going on in her life, she is always there. She’s our ‘go to’ person.”
In her job, Mahlum uses all of her personal experiences and knowledge of every social aspect to make a connection with her students. She truly cares about every students and understands what they go through. “This job is all about living in awkward,” Mahlum says. “It’s about talking to your students about awkward situations and I love living in awkward.”
Mahlum plays a huge role as one of the leaders for the counseling department. The counseling department has transformed in the nine years she has been there. It’s like a team, she says. “There’s just a really good sense of family in the counseling office,” Mahlum says.
Students find her comfortable to be around and they see Mahlum as someone they can rely on. “She is very motherly,” says senior Akiva Hillman, “She’s definitely a person I go to talk to when I’m stressed about things.”
And that’s whether she is helping a student with a family issue or helping them ask someone to prom.
The administrators agree. Vice Principal Brian Chatard says Mahlum’s work ethic is great for the school. “She is a fantastic person to work with,” he says. “She’s hard working, a self-starter. She has a good heart and she speaks her mind even when you don’t want her to.”