Stonington - As a little kid, Stonington High School senior Wes Gordon remembers, he tagged 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. As a teenager growing up in Hartford, 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 into fights.
He began selling marijuana and then cocaine, earning several hundred dollars a day or more. As a 14-year-old, Gordon was arrested as part of group that badly beat another boy.
When he was 17, he said, he narrowly avoided being arrested when Hartford police raided the house of a friend with whom he had sold drugs.
"I took that as a sign," he said. "I said, 'I got to get out of here.' "
Several days later, wearing the same clothes and not having showered since the police raid, Gordon went to see an older friend whose daughter was in Hartford Hospital. The man was shocked by Gordon's appearance and, after hearing what had happened, offered to let Gordon stay with his family in Norwich. Shortly afterward they all moved to a house in Pawcatuck.
Gordon enrolled in Stonington High school in the fall of 2007 after getting his father's permission for the friend he was living with to be his guardian. His father balked at first but then agreed.
"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 also wanted to be more like his older sister, Shanae Rowland, who graduated from high school and attended college.
"I use 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.
"I remember when he registered," recalled Jennifer McCurdy, a former guidance counselor who is now assistant principal. "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 got their first insight into the details of Gordon's earlier life 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 other staff members with helping him earn the diploma he will receive 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.
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 at first Gordon would only talk to his guidance counselors. He 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."
Earlier this year he had to move out of the house he was living in and return to Hartford, just a semester short of graduation.
Bousquet, McCurdy and others urged him to come back. They convinced him to at least take his final exams for the previous semester.
Gordon's classmate and girlfriend, Sarah Riley, and her parents, Doug and Sharon, offered 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 it. 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 has visited his old neighborhood, where he sees friends doing the same things he did when he lived there.
On a recent visit, a Hartford police cruiser pulled up alongside him. An officer asked Gordon where he'd been.
"I'm gone," Gordon told them. "You don't have to worry about me anymore."