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As a little kid, Stonington High School senior Wes Gordon remembers tagging along with his mother when she went to crack houses to use drugs.
"My whole life I always wanted to be with my mom," he said.
But she eventually signed over her parental rights to Gordon's father, who lived in Hartford. As a teenager growing up there, Gordon said he repeatedly skipped class and dropped out of school as he began hanging out with older people on his block. He drank, smoked marijuana, and got in fights.
He soon began selling marijuana and then cocaine, earning several hundred dollars a day or more. As a 14-year-old, the soft-spoken Gordon was arrested as part of group that badly beat another boy. Over the years he's lived with not only his mother and father but an assortment of relatives and friends.
When he was 17, he said he narrowly avoided being arrested when Hartford police raided the house of a friend he sold drugs with.
"I took that as a sign," he commented. "I said, 'I got to get out of here.' "
That's when Gordon went to see an older friend whose daughter was at Hartford Hospital. The man offered to let Gordon stay with his family in Norwich and then move with them to a house in Pawcatuck.
Having never given up on his dream of getting his high school diploma, Gordon decided to enroll in Stonington High school in the fall of 2007.
"I wanted to go to high school and have the experience," he said. "I always had the opportunity but I always screwed it up. I wanted to prove something to everybody."
He said he was tired of being in the streets and knew that there were other ways to make money and be successful. He also wanted to be more like his older sister, Shanae Rowland, who graduated from high school and attended college.
"I used to tell him, 'This is not for you. Make something of yourself. Don't be like everyone else,'" said Rowland, who also told him how much fun her senior year was.
Gordon asked his father if he would allow his friend to be his guardian so he could enroll at Stonington High School. His father balked at first but then agreed.
"I remember when he registered," recalled former guidance counselor and now assistant principal Jennifer McCurdy. "I said, 'What do I do with a 17-year-old, third-year freshman who registered in November?' But I thought we should give him the benefit of the doubt. He's telling us he wants to be here so let's help him succeed."
Interim guidance director Tom Bousquet said he's never seen a student quite like Gordon, who is described as quiet and well respected.
"While we helped him, he also met us halfway. He had the drive to succeed," he said.
Most students do not know the details of Gordon's earlier life but did get some insight into it when he performed a rap song he wrote at the school's talent show last month.
The now 20-year-old Gordon credits McCurdy, Bousquet, and many other staff members with helping him earn the diploma he will receive at the school's graduation ceremony on June 21.
"There were so many times I wanted to give up and go back to Hartford and then I'd come into school and they would say something nice to me and tell me to hold on," he said.
While Gordon is little uncomfortable talking about his previous life, a big smile comes across his face when he talks about his time in Stonington.
"I love it here. Stonington is like a picture perfect HD movie," he said. "This is like seeing a movie and saying, 'I want to live in that neighborhood. I want to go to that school.'"
McCurdy said that at first Gordon would only talk to his guidance counselors. He also worked many hours to support himself and during his combined sophomore and junior year he worked an overnight shift. He kept falling asleep in class, putting his diploma in jeopardy.
McCurdy said she brought Gordon into her office and demanded an explanation.
"He didn't want anyone to know he was working at night. He didn't want anyone to feel bad for him," she said. "And he didn't want to let anyone down."
Gordon got back on track.
"I fell off my game a few times but the teachers, the guidance counselors, even the hall monitors, they've always been there for me. They always kept pushing me," he said. "There's so much love here."
An even bigger challenge came earlier this year when he had to move out of the house he was living in and returned to Hartford, just a semester short of graduation.
That's when he began receiving numerous calls every day from Bousquet, McCurdy, and others begging him to come back. They were finally able to convince him to at least take his final exams for the previous semester. Meanwhile, they worked to find him a place to live and even had a faculty member agree to take him in.
That wasn't needed as Gordon's classmate and girlfriend Sarah Riley, and her parents, Doug and Sharon, agreed to let him live at their house until he graduated.
"I love that family to death for what they've done for Wesley. They are like family to me," said Rowland, who will attend her brother's graduation ceremony.
"All I can do is smile when I think about [his graduation]. I'm so happy for him because at one point it did not look like he'd make it," she said.
As for the future, Gordon said he plans to enlist in the military as a way to pursue a career.
Occasionally, he said, he's visited his old neighborhood where he sees friends doing the same things he did when he lived there.
On a recent visit, he said a Hartford police cruiser pulled up alongside him. An officer asked Gordon where he'd been.
"I'm gone. You don't have to worry about me anymore," Gordon said.