Seattle Nelson had just worked 12 hours on the graveyard shift at a BP convenience store in New Port Richey. He longed for sleep, but first he had a promise to keep.
The woman who saved him needed some muscle. Seattle, 6-6 and 240 pounds, has plenty. He left the counter and slid behind the wheel of his 1999 Buick Park Avenue, a gas-guzzler with 178,000 miles he bought for $500. He turned the key.
A few miles away, Janet Tolson, a celebrated math teacher at Seven Springs Middle School, waited by her packed filing cabinets. "Where is that boy?'' she wondered.
Seattle had been calling her cellphone, sending texts. Finally, she checked.
"I don't know why you have a cellphone if you're not going to answer it,'' he said.
Tolson grabbed her car keys and ran out the door. Seattle needed her — again.
• • •
These days, the crises seem so minor. No fists through the wall. Seattle, a year after a high school graduation that once seemed unlikely, is doing fine.
He's working three jobs. When he's not at the convenience store, he's processing and labeling packages at UPS, or helping care for a chronically ill man.
He still thinks he might like to be a nurse, but after finishing up at Mitchell High last June, he was ready to take a year off from school. This fall, he'll attend Pasco-Hernando Community College.
And he's in love. He met Samantha Jackson when they both worked at the American Eagle at Gulf View Square mall. They want to get married, but she's good with money and knows they don't have enough yet to be on their own. Tolson likes her. She gave her Seattle's room, so he's now on the couch. "I have my limits on morality,'' said Tolson, 48. "I'm such a prude, I guess.''
She's also a force — the daughter of a Marine drill sergeant with much the same stubbornness. She doesn't give up, a trait that earned her recognition last year as one of Pasco's top three teachers. She took Seattle, a kid more destined for prison than college, and turned him around.
"I've eased up on him a bit,'' Tolson said last week as she prepared to take on a new challenge in her 10th year at Seven Springs — intensive care for the worst math students. "He's demonstrated he can be trusted to take care of business.''
• • •
We first told you about Seattle a year ago. State child protection agents took him from his parents on Christmas morning 2007 and put him in a shelter. They described filth, neglect and alcoholism. His two older brothers had been removed earlier. His little sister was about to be placed with relatives in Alabama.
Seattle missed 61 school days as a seventh-grader and failed every course. Even so, his gentle nature endeared him to teachers at River Ridge Middle School. When Seattle turned 15, veteran teacher Kathy Sanders went to the shelter and surprised him with a cake and gifts. By then, a judge had severed parental rights. Seattle was so depressed living in a home full of boys nobody wanted his teachers worried he might commit suicide. Sanders spread the word about him, wondering whether somebody might give him a home.
Tolson, a single woman who rescued dogs and tutored struggling students for free, had an extra bedroom and agreed to take him in. She bought him clothes, took him to doctors, forced him to attend classes and do homework. He resisted at first, sometimes in a menacing manner. Tolson didn't back down. In October 2009, shortly after Seattle turned 16, authorities considered sending him to Alabama with his sister. He didn't want to go. He asked Tolson if she would adopt him. She agreed.
• • •
Seattle was muscling Tolson's filing cabinets toward an elevator when a classroom door swung open.
"Seattle!'' screamed Anne Rath as she reached up to hug his neck. The science teacher raved about the young man who spent the last three years hanging around the school, waiting for his mom to finish her day and drive him home.
"We love Seattle,'' Rath said, "and Janet is the heartbeat of this school.''
"We're in big trouble,'' Tolson replied.
As Seattle made his way to Tolson's new room, other teachers rushed to hug him. "My school raised Seattle,'' Tolson said. "He didn't get a chance to stray.''
Perhaps, but thanks to a tough woman with a tender heart, he did get a chance.