SAN ANTONIO — Stories about Jesse Pope often end with the phrase "and then he punched the wall."
Pope, 18, had what his English teacher Michele Moore called a "fondness for fighting." His anger problems caused him to be removed from three different high schools.
"I didn't like people," Pope said Thursday, recalling how he got expelled from one school after an altercation that started in a gym class dodgeball game. "I would just snap at the smallest thing. I didn't like school. I didn't like teachers. … I didn't care what anybody thought."
Then he saw those baby blue eyes. His own baby's eyes, that is.
"When I had my daughter, it was a complete game changer," Pope said. "I know how my life was, and I don't want hers to be the same."
On Thursday, he was honored as the 2013 turnaround student of the year for Marchman Technical Education Center when the Pasco County School District held its 25th recognition of students who made dramatic positive changes in their lives.
"That is why we exist. We want our students to be successful," superintendent Kurt Browning told the 33 students, their parents, friends and teachers at the annual luncheon, held at the Tampa Bay Golf and Country Club. "This district is proud of you."
One by one the students thanked family members, friends, teachers, God and other positive influences.
"I learned how to dream again," Mitchell High School senior turnaround student Francisco Cubias, who plans to attend the University of Wisconsin, told the audience. "I feel like a kid in kindergarten."
Stewart Middle School eighth-grader Kendall Coburn bluntly acknowledged her volatile temper, which she eventually overcame.
"I just want to thank my mom and dad for standing by me and putting up with all the crap I put them through," she said to knowing nods.
Pope broke into tears as he addressed the audience. He acknowledged the other students, and said he identified with them. Some had made quick improvements. His took longer.
"I messed up three years in a row," said Pope, who entered his senior year with a 0.6 grade point average. He pointed to his daughter, Zoey. "That little girl changed my life. Nothing more, nothing less."
Enrolled in the district's teen parent Cyesis program, he has a management job at McDonald's, a 2.6 GPA and expects to graduate from Ridgewood High on time this year.
"There is so much he is going to be able to do because he realized he wanted to be a better man than the young man he was," said Moore.
Pope's mom, Kim, beamed with pride and tears. She and his girlfriend, Jessica Seavey, admitted some surprise in Jesse's reversal. His 10-year-old sister Francesca wasn't so amazed. "He always had it in him," the fourth-grader said. "I just could tell."
It took Zoey to make him see past his anger. Not that he advocated becoming a teen parent. But faced with the responsibility — one he cherishes — it was time to grow up.
"Childish acts, making teachers angry, screwing around in school, it's not going to get you anywhere," said Pope, who plans to work before enlisting in the Army.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.