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Thomas Booker approached middle school with a certain theory: He didn’t need to work hard because grades don’t really matter until high school.

“I didn’t care about school,” he said.

But when he entered Crescent Valley High School, he found he couldn’t just switch to being a good student as easily as he expected. His habit of procrastinating continued and assignments began to pile up.

Since he had anxiety about disappointing his teachers, he started skipping school occasionally rather than face them. But this caused him to fall farther behind. So he began skipping more than occasionally. By November or December, he said, he stopped going altogether.

About two weeks later, he got a phone call that he had been unenrolled from school.

“I just thought ‘I guess I’m going to be a dropout,’” he said.

And that’s when Mrs. McConahy got involved.

“When I saw she was calling, my heart stopped. I thought, ‘Here are all my problems coming back,’” he said.

Angela Apple McConahy had been Booker’s third-grade teacher at Wilson Elementary School. Although they'd kept in touch, he said he hadn’t talked with her much during the transition to high school. During her call and a second conversation over a board game with her family, Apple McConahy convinced Booker to return to school.

“She told me that she was disappointed in what I was doing, that I can’t just stop school,” Booker said. “It got me thinking that if I’m not going to pursue high school, then my future doesn’t have as many opportunities as I wanted it to.”

With Apple McConahy’s advice, Booker got back in touch with the school and signed up to begin classes again in the second semester of the year. Booker said getting to start fresh was the second chance he needed, although he was behind on credits after failing all of his first semester classes.

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However, since then he’s worked hard to recover credits, doing summer school and taking online classes. By his senior year he was caught up on credits and was even taking honors and AP courses.

Booker still has a lot of anxiety whenever he struggles in school, which came up this year as he went into more demanding AP and honors courses. Although he did switch out of some classes, he's still on track to graduate and he plans to study computer science and participate in choir at Linn-Benton Community College, with a dream of becoming a video game composer.

He said Apple McConahy, who now teaches fourth grade at Wilson, has continued to stay in touch and make sure he's keeping up. He said she’ been like a second mom to him and without her intervention he wouldn’t be on track to graduate.

“It was a really important turning point in my life,” he said.

Apple McConahy said even in the third grade she could see Booker had potential.

“It was also clear that he didn't see his own potential, or trust that he could do hard things. I wanted him to be able to see what I could see in him already. I hoped that by being a steady, consistent adult who had high expectations for him he would grow to meet his potential,” she said.

Apple McConahy added that as Booker was trying to get back on track his freshman year, he asked her to call him every morning to give him a positive start to his day, which she still does, usually on her drive into work.

She added that seeing him getting ready to graduate is an emotional experience:

“It makes me want to cry. I'm so happy to see how Thomas has blossomed and succeeded. He has transformed from a frustrated, angry boy into a well-rounded, happy young man. I have nothing but faith that'll he'll continue to be successful.”

Booker said he's excited walk with his friends at Crescent Valley’s graduation ceremony, which is scheduled for 5 p.m. on June 7, in the school’s gym. He said while anxiety has continued to be a struggle for him, the support he’s had from his friends has kept him going and he’s looking forward to celebrating with them.

“There’s a lot of relief that comes from graduating,” he said. “I’m amazed at myself that I’ve come this far.”

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Anthony Rimel covers weekend events, education, courts and crime and can be reached at anthony.rimel@lee.net, 541-758-9526, or via Twitter @anthonyrimel.

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