Paul Herzlich sat in his wheelchair under his favorite tree during lunch hour at Taft High School on Friday with his girlfriend, Molly Clark, on his lap. It didn’t look like the kids were talking about food. Molly was giving Paul a hug and a kiss, and he was returning the favor with a smile that could have lit up half the DWP power grid in Los Angeles. All in all, it was another beautiful day in the life of an 18-year-old who has put some dark days behind him. Paul was one of the students standing at the bus stop in front of Taft High in Woodland Hills after school on Sept. 9, 2003 – six days in to the new school year – when three gangbangers drove by and fired a semiautomatic weapon. Three students were injured, Paul the most seriously. He spent more than three months in the hospital and missed a full year of school. The other two students recovered from their wounds and have already graduated. The bullet that creased Paul’s spine took away his ability to walk, but it didn’t touch his heart. That’s working just fine. In fact, better than fine. Paul is graduating from Taft in a few weeks as an honor student and is headed for college at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He’s glad to be alive, in love, and has a bright future – a heck of a lot brighter than the gangbangers who are in state prison right now for putting Paul in that wheelchair. Two of the gang members were sentenced to 120 years to life in prison after being found guilty of attempted murder. A third pleaded guilty, testified, and got a 15-year sentence. “I don’t think about them or that day any more,” Paul said Friday, giving Molly a hug. “No flashbacks, nothing like that. “When I woke up after surgery and found I was still alive, that’s all I cared about. Obviously, you know it’s a bad situation, but when you think about it, the only thing that changed about me was physically. “I’m still Paul, just in a wheelchair now.” Nearby, Paul’s mother, Linda Herzlich, and Taft Principal Sharon Thomas, shake their heads. If it was them in that wheelchair – the victim of a violent crime – there would be more than a little anger mixed in with all that optimism, both women said. “Allan (Paul’s dad) and I sometimes would ask him how he stays so positive and never gets angry or depressed. Most people, myself included, would still be carrying around some anger,” Linda says. “Paul just smiles and shrugs his shoulders. That’s our son.” It was a little strange at first, coming back to school after so many months in the hospital and rehabilitation, Paul says. He wasn’t sure how the other students were going to react when he wheeled himself into the classroom for the first time. He needn’t have worried. They reacted like friends should react. They cheered and clapped. Then they walked over and gave him hugs to welcome him back. The gangbangers’ bullet had hit their friend’s spine, not his heart. He was still Paul, smiling and laughing. Just in a wheelchair now. “Paul’s return helped the whole school finally move on from that tragic day,” Thomas said. “The students saw him and said if he can come back and move on, they could, too. “Two of his teacher who had classrooms on the second floor moved to ground-level classrooms so Paul could be in their class. Everybody likes and admires that kid.” And when it came time last week at the school’s award banquet to announce the winner of the “Attitude Is Everything” scholarship, well, Taft High School once again cheered and clapped for Paul Herzlich. Sometimes, out of the most negative situations, something positive happens, Paul says. Had he not missed that year of school, he would have graduated last year and never met the girl sitting in his lap Friday. He and Molly met in biology class and became instant friends – hanging out together, doing their homework and going to movies together. “It just kind of blossomed from there,” she said, giving him another hug. “What can I tell you? He’s just a wonderful, warm, funny guy.” When I left Friday, the two were still sitting together under that tree in Paul’s wheelchair talking and laughing. I don’t think they ever got around to lunch. Dennis McCarthy’s column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. [email protected] (818) 713-3749160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!