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Mitchell High School senior's turnaround began with teachers who wouldn't let him fail

Seattle Nelson, 14, woke up on Christmas morning 2007 to the sound of his mother crying.

Child protection investigators had seen enough. Seven years earlier they took his two older brothers away. Now they were coming for Seattle.

His parents had put up a tree. They even wrapped a few gifts for Seattle and his 7-year-old sister. But any sense of normalcy evaporated the next morning when authorities picked him up and deposited him at a shelter.

They had been to the small New Port Richey house many times, responding to complaints of violence and neglect. They painted a sickening picture — roaches everywhere, maggots in the kitchen sink, the stench of cat urine and feces, empty vodka bottles on the floor, no food in the cabinets or refrigerator.

The final straw seemed pale by comparison: truancy.

As a seventh-grader at River Ridge Middle School, Seattle had missed 61 days. He made straight Fs, but still advanced to the eighth grade in the name of social promotion. At 6-feet-4 and 220 pounds, he could be frightening to younger students.

Kathy Sanders had taught school for 37 years. Not much surprised her. But on the infrequent days that Seattle showed up for her eighth-grade science class, she could not believe the way he touched her heart.

"He just seemed so sad all the time," Sanders recalled. "He was probably the biggest kid in school, yet he would sit at his desk and cry."

• • •

Once in protective custody, Seattle made it to school more often but the results were the same. "You can't go to school with all that pain and be expected to do the work," Sanders said.

A judge severed the parental rights of Darren and Amy Nelson. Seattle's sister moved in with family in Alabama and he was assigned to live with 40 other troubled teens at the Harbinger House, notorious to New Port Richey police. Seattle hated everything about it — the constant fights, the rigid rules, bad food.

Sanders worried about him. In September, she surprised him on his 15th birthday with a cake and gifts. "He couldn't believe somebody actually remembered his birthday," Sanders said.

Sanders had considered taking Seattle into her home, but she had already raised three children. "I'm too soft," she said. "He needed somebody to push him, somebody much tougher."

A few miles away, Janet Tolson, 47, daughter of a Marine drill sergeant, went to work teaching kids to read at Seven Springs Middle School. In her spare time, she tutored children for free, rescued stray dogs. She had given up on ever getting married or having children.

One of her fellow teachers had been at Seattle's birthday party. She said Sanders feared Seattle might be suicidal.

Sanders wondered: "Doesn't anybody want a kid?"

Tolson thought about it. "It's just me and the dogs. I have a room. I could take a kid. How hard could it be?"

Sanders picked up Seattle and they met Tolson at Chili's. "He was scared," Tolson said. "He didn't talk much. When I asked him, 'You okay with this?' he started to cry. I thought, well, I can do this for him."

Tolson didn't want to go through all the hoops to become a foster parent. She agreed to serve as a non-relative caregiver. But within three weeks, Seattle was moving in to her two-bedroom house.

"It all happened so fast," Tolson said. "The third time I met him I was taking him into my home.''

• • •

Seattle arrived with his belongings in a black plastic garbage bag. He had two pairs of underwear, a jacket with a broken zipper, a pair of jeans. No socks.

"We went shopping," Tolson said.

On the second day, he missed the bus to school. His probation officer had placed him at AMIkids, a nonprofit facility that mixed curriculum and counseling to help juveniles avoid deeper problems with the law.

"I came home to a clean house," Tolson recalled. "Seattle said, 'Oh, yeah, I got home early so I thought I'd clean.' "

Ten minutes later, his caseworker knocked on the front door. Seattle had lied.

The next day he missed the bus again. The honeymoon was over. Tolson started driving him to school, which meant he had to get up before dawn because she first drove to Hudson to check on her elderly parents. She took away his cell phone.

Seattle complained to his caseworker. "I can't live like this," he told her. "I can't live with all these rules."

Seattle had never been expected to study. His mother had a fifth-grade education. Now he found himself living with a schoolteacher. Tolson had bachelor's degrees from Northwestern University and the University of South Florida, where she also earned a master's in curriculum. She is a dissertation short of a doctorate.

She made Seattle do his homework. She made him go to class. In the first months at AMIkids, for the first time in his life, he earned As and Bs and praise from his teachers.

Tolson got Seattle transferred to Mitchell High School, next door to Seven Springs Middle, so she could drop him off in the morning and pick him up after classes.

Seattle progressed but was quick to anger. During one argument with Tolson, he put his fist through a living room wall. By the time he was midway through his sophomore year, he had grown to 6-feet-6. Tolson stands 5-feet-4.

"He can be intimidating," Tolson said. "He looks and sounds scary when he's angry. If I had any sense, I'd probably be afraid. But I'm pretty feisty."

Tolson's parents, Edward and Tillie, lived in Hudson. They taught him to play gin and cribbage, and Seattle enjoyed Ed's stories from his career with the Marines. They joked that Janet got her stubbornness from her dad.

They grew closer every day, going to movies, watching TV. They cried together during sad moments. They cooked together and Tolson marveled at how much the boy could eat. The state sent her $417 a month to help with her expenses. "I ate that much in a day," Seattle said.

Tolson drove him to football, wrestling, martial arts. She took him to the dentist and when he needed it, to the counselor who had helped him get through his family crises.

Janet Tolson, in short, became Seattle's mother — without the title. Then out of the blue he shocked her with a question: "Will you adopt me?"

Authorities had considered sending him to Alabama to join his sister. He wanted to stay.

"I told him,'' Tolson said, "at this point, it should be about what you want."

A judge signed off on the adoption in October 2009, shortly after Seattle turned 16.

Their relationship grew even stronger. He called her "mom." He called her parents "grandma" and "grandpa." He grieved with the family last April when Tillie Tolson died at 88. He honored Ed Tolson by placing his drill sergeant hat on his bedroom wall, next to a portrait of the famous Indian chief Seattle.

As a junior, Seattle took honors English and advanced placement economics and government. He pulled a solid B average. He slipped a bit this year. He attributed that to "senioritis." Tolson, who this year was honored as Seven Springs Middle's teacher of the year and one of the top three teachers in all of Pasco County, wasn't amused.

"The finish line is near," she told him. "Don't mess up now."

She'll be at the Tampa Convention Center on Saturday afternoon when Seattle accepts his diploma. She's planning a big party for him.

Seattle, now 18, wants to become a registered nurse. He's not sure how much longer he'll live at home, "but I'll always feel welcome here," he says.

Janet Tolson stepped up to save a boy. Teachers and counselors who have witnessed his transformation call her a hero.

"A kid needed help," she said, "and I have love in my heart. I'm just so glad I had an extra room. Seattle has given me much more than I have given him. I'm the lucky one."

Mitchell High School senior's turnaround began with teachers who wouldn't let him fail 05/29/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 30, 2012 8:48am]
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