SOUTH PORTLAND – Stephen Thurston has received two letters in his life that most children would rather not get.

One was from his mother, who was a drug user and dealer, he said. She left the note in their Portland apartment before she fled the cops and the state when he was 8 years old.

The other was from his father and namesake. He found it in their South Portland apartment last December. His father had warned him that he would be leaving soon, heading down to Florida for better prospects that might await him there.

In the letter, written just six months before Thurston hoped to graduate from South Portland High School, his father explained that he couldn’t say goodbye in person. He apologized for his untimely departure.

“He said he just couldn’t do it anymore,” Thurston said. “I know he did the best he could.”

Despite a turbulent childhood marked by abuse, abandonment and run-ins with police and school officials, Thurston graduated earlier this month. His father came back to Maine for the ceremony.

Thurston has enlisted in the Army. On Wednesday, he leaves to begin training as a Black Hawk helicopter mechanic and hopes to become a pilot. His hair is already buzz-cut short.

“I’m pumped,” he said. “I’ve been waiting to go in the military my whole life. Since I was little, it’s something I wanted to do.” His father served in the military, as did other family members.

Thurston said he views the ups and downs of his life with remarkable maturity and clarity because he’s been through counseling that helped him understand the adults who hurt him.

Like his mother, who did hard drugs while she was pregnant and moved him from one unhealthy home to another, including a homeless shelter in Portland. And his aunt, who beat him when he lived with her for a while.

After his mother left Maine, he moved to South Portland to live with his father and his father’s girlfriend, Sue Arey. The couple eventually married, then divorced when Thurston was a sophomore.

He credits Arey with providing stability and structure in his life.

“Sue is a huge reason I even made it,” Thurston said. “She had set rules for me. I’d throw a hissy fit, and she wouldn’t react. Her father, Galen, was like a grandfather to me. When I did something wrong, he wouldn’t punish me. He would just tell me how disappointed he was, and that was worse.”

Thurston said he was crushed when Galen Arey died during his sophomore year. He said his bond with Sue Arey remains so strong, despite her divorce from his father, that she allowed Thurston to move back in with her when his father moved to Florida in December.

Still, getting along without a mother in his life has been difficult. In elementary and middle school, Thurston often got into fights and other minor trouble when his anger got the best of him. Detentions and suspensions were common.

As he got older, school attendance became a bigger challenge, especially when he was working full-time jobs after school and at night to help make ends meet when his father was between jobs.

When Thurston was at school, he often enjoyed it, especially at South Portland High. He excelled in math and physics. He played lacrosse and football for the first three years.

“High school changed everything because I got interested in sports,” Thurston said. “It gave me something to strive for and a way to deal with my anger.”

He said it also helped that many administrators and teachers understood the challenges in his life and supported him, even when he got into trouble. The respect is mutual.

“Through the toughest of personal times, Steve remained focused on his education and we are all very proud that he graduated,” said Principal Jeanne Crocker. “In many ways, he’s been a role model for all of us. Knowing what we did about all he was going through, we just couldn’t be part of that adversity. As he enters adulthood, I think he has a better sense of himself and he feels a real responsibility to give back.”

Thurston said he plans to spend at least eight years in the Army. He’d also like his future to include his girlfriend, Stephanie Hem, another 2010 South Portland High graduate, who will be attending Southern Maine Community College.

“I want to have kids and be able to give them everything I didn’t have,” he said. “I want to own my own house and have a family. I want to feel like I belong to something. That’s one reason I want to be in the military.”

If anyone doubts he’ll succeed, Thurston takes it as encouragement.

“I love proving people wrong,” he said. “The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do is not be like my mom and dad.”


Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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