Travis Leard started smoking marijuana in seventh grade.
Within two years, he was abusing prescription drugs, buying Percocet and Vicodin from the kids he skated with in Port Jefferson. He said he tried cocaine, ecstasy, acid, downed animal tranquilizers and smoked a pack a day.
His parents were divorcing, and he didn't get along with his mother. Leard, 18, said she locked him out of the house one night when he was 15 because he was high.
But no matter how far he veered off course, the adults in Leard's life knew he was gifted.
His high school guidance counselor, Ann Clyde, talked to him often about his potential. She isn't sure how she knew it -- she chalked it up to her 20 years of experience -- but it was clear Leard was special.
"Travis was one of those kids who was extremely, extremely smart but wasn't engaged in school," she said.
It was more than that, actually. Leard was so drug-addled, he doubted he even had a future. Why study for algebra if you aren't going to live past 20?
But even at his worst, Leard said, he knew he was squandering his life and many of the kids he was skating with -- who gave him drugs -- weren't really his friends. And if he continued using, he could lose the few substantive relationships he had.
"I had a few dreams, epiphanies that I was a hobo wiping up car windshields with newspaper and my own spit," he said. "That definitely helped."
There was nothing special about Jan. 29, 2011, but that day Leard stopped everything -- the drugs, the cigarettes -- cold turkey. He's been sober since.
Leard, who lives in Port Jefferson Station, shared his story with faculty to encourage teachers not to give up on even their worst students. He wanted them to know "people can change if given the right opportunities."
He credits the educators who encouraged him along the way -- particularly those who treated him with dignity when it would have been easier to punish him for his infractions.
Leard has even spoken with other students living on the brink, hoping to provide them with some insight.
Sometimes it's worked, sometimes not.
"I believe anyone can change," said Leard, if the person wants it badly enough.
"As soon as I started going to school I started to gain respect, and I liked that feeling," he said. "It's incredible how much things can change when you start doing the right thing. Me and my mom get along better than we ever have. She is more than just a parent. She is my best friend."
Fueled by the positive feedback from his family and teachers, he's had few temptations.
"I don't go to parties," he said. "I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't even think about it anymore. I have other things to entertain me."
And he had a special plan to repair his smoke-damaged lungs. "I joined wrestling," he said. "In my first month . . . I was coughing up tar and blood all the time.
But that stopped, too.
He was barely passing his freshman and sophomore year, but his grades have since rebounded. He has scored in the high 90s in several Advanced Placement and other college-level courses and plans to become a chemical engineer. He'll attend Suffolk County Community College in the fall and will do whatever it takes, he said, to transfer to Stony Brook.
"He has the ability to do whatever he wants to do," said Renee Weber, Leard's Algebra 2 and trigonometry teacher. "He doesn't really let anything stop him."
What makes you extraordinary
"I'm just excited to have a future now. Now I have to think as far ahead as graduate school. I plan on having a family and settling down . . . all of this stuff I didn't think about a couple of years ago."