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Groton — Looking back, Tristan Pepin says it wasn't just that he didn't like middle school, but that he also didn't like who he was at the time.
"I wouldn't have wanted to be my friend either," said Pepin, 18, the valedictorian of the Ella T. Grasso Southeastern Technical High School Class of 2014 and recipient of a Presidential Scholarship to the University of Connecticut.
"I was socially isolated, and my grades were poor to average," he explained. "I was sort of a loner and I sort of pushed people away. I wasn't a bully, but I wasn't conducive to friendship. I was not helpful or kind."
Grasso Tech changed all that.
"It just felt different when I got here," said Pepin, sitting in a classroom at the Fort Hill Road school where students receive both academic and trade or technology training. "It was a new place with different walls and different people, and I realized that the bad grades and social cliques didn't have to carry over."
Pepin, of Ledyard, decided to change.
The summer before entering Grasso Tech, he went to the nonprofit educational website Khan Academy and boned up on every subject that he thought he could improve upon.
"I wanted to pull myself up academically," he said, "but I also wanted to look at other things I was doing wrong. I wanted to reinvent myself."
At that time, Pepin, the third of four children of Michael and Loucille Pepin, believed a post-secondary education was financially out of reach, and that whatever technology he focused on at Grasso would become his career after high school graduation.
But with the honor of having the highest GPA and therefore being named the Class of 2014 valedictorian, Pepin has qualified for the full tuition scholarship from UConn, where he will study engineering starting in the fall.
But that's getting ahead of Pepin's personal reinvention.
In addition to buckling down in the classroom, Pepin realized he needed to do better planning.
"I was looking at things I was doing wrong, and realized my organization was not that good," he said.
So he invested in a pocket-sized notebook to keep track of things.
Whenever he gets an idea, assignment, or knows there's a household chore that he's responsible for, he jots it down and gives it a numerical value as a way of prioritizing.
"It comes out of my pocket every day when I go home," said Pepin, who only learned he had attained the top academic spot at the end of the third marking period.
"Oh yeah, it was closer than a sheet of paper," said Pepin, about the points separating him from the second student.
It wasn't until he arrived at Grasso that Pepin settled on CADD, or computer-aided design and drafting, as his course of study. Every freshman at the school goes through "exploratory," where they test out the various options: carpentry, electrical, hairdressing, culinary arts, automotive technology, to name some of them.
"Hairdressing, I liked it more than you might think, but not as much as drafting," said Pepin, who explained that his technology allows him to use both math and design skills.
"I get to apply my love of math and my love of the arts. I get to create and invent," he said.
Teacher Thomas Allen said Pepin is "a great student" to have in the classroom because he can work out problems on his own or in a group.
"He's willing to take initiatives in education. He's a self-learner, but he's also willing to take instruction," said Allen, who added that Pepin is also incredibly disciplined.
"Tristan has spent the last two years thinking beyond high school - 'Where do I go from here? Where will this get me down the road?'" said Allen.
His mother, Loucille Pepin, said Tristan has always set high standards for himself and she disagreed with his personal assessment of being "a mediocre" student in middle school.
"He's a very intelligent young man," she said, "and he's always been hard on himself."
His parents are elated but not surprised, she said, that Tristan is the top student in his class and by virtue of that, will be able to attend UConn.
"Of all my children, he's definitely the most driven and disciplined," she said.
Tristan's advice to other students is to make academics a priority.
"I've turned down invitations to movies when I've had to study," he said.
Tristan is grateful for his time at Grasso Tech, for the teachers there who have guided him, and for the friends he has made.
"It was sort of an epiphany when I came here," he said. "I thought, 'Hey, maybe I can be a different person and influence where I'm going.'"
His drafting teacher said it was the combination of the school and Tristan's hard work that paid off.
"In coming here to Grasso and finding a technology that suited his personality, that afforded him an opportunity he otherwise would not have, an opportunity for his future," said Allen. "And watching someone take advantage of that opportunity to the fullest, that's maturity and discipline."