South Portland graduate clears life's hurdles to stay on the (academic) track

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Brandon Emerson is accustomed to clearing hurdles – on the track and in life.

Next year, Emerson will be a member of the track team when attends the University of Southern Maine. But first he must walk down the aisle Sunday, June 7, with nearly 200 South Portland High School classmates to receive his diploma. The 2 p.m. ceremony will be held on Martin Field, or in Beal Gym in case of rain.  

The beginning of Emerson’s life was not unlike that of other kids. He had a stable home. His dad, a former track and field standout, took Emerson to T-ball games and gave him tips about running track. 

Then in 2000, the unthinkable happened, making Emerson’s high school graduation an unlikely accomplishment. 

Emerson’s mother, Catherine, picked him up from school on Halloween to take her son to buy a costume. Before they left, Catherine told her 9-year-old son to put on his seat belt, as she always would. Once fastened, Emerson took out his Gameboy and the two cruised along River Road in Windham.

“I don’t really know what happened,” Emerson said. “We skidded and the car just started rolling.” 

Emerson emerged from the wreck with minor cuts and bruises, but his mother, who was not wearing her seat belt, was killed. 

The death sent the family into a tailspin. They moved to Redbank Village. Both of Emerson’s older brothers dropped out of school. Emerson’s father began to drink heavily and only now, nine years later, is making a concerted effort to quit.

“I think we’re both getting better now,” Emerson said. 

Emerson said the accident left him angry and depressed, making it difficult for him to concentrate on school. He struggled to get through middle school, failing some
of his sixth-grade classes. Somewhere around the seventh grade, Emerson said he had thoughts of
suicide. Those thoughts stayed with him until his freshman year in high

The 18-year-old said there were times he blamed himself for the death of his mother, whom he can now barely recall. 

“She liked to play board games and sing karaoke. She liked to smile and had a lot of friends,” Emerson said. “She always told me to put on my seat belt and I used to blame myself, thinking I should have told her to put on hers.” 

When he began having suicidal thoughts, Emerson sought help at Spring Harbor. But after a brief period of treatment, his dad took Emerson off his medications.

“I had to figure it out on my own and find the meaning,” he said. “At the time, I didn’t agree with it. But in the end it made me stronger. Now, I’m a lot better at handling my stress.”

Emerson said his soul-searching was done with the help of music and his girlfriend, Kayle, who helped make sure he was doing his homework and not playing video games. 

He also joined the football team, which gave him an aggressive outlet.

Emerson eventually shed the misery of his past and bleak thoughts of the future. He made the honor roll his junior year, but may fall short his senior year, largely because he is taking a more difficult class load, including honors physics.

“I got a little case of senioritis this year,” he admitted. 

Emerson said he never thought he would graduate from high school, let alone go to college. Next year, the hurdler will have one more obstacle to clear – he will enter USM with an undecided major, but only because there is a two-year wait to get into the nursing program.

“I thought I was going to drop out like my older brothers,” Emerson said. “Now that I’m graduating, it’s exciting and scary.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or


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s-spgraduate1.jpgBrandon Emerson, 18, fought off depression after living through a fatal car accident that killed his mother. The former football player and standout track and field hurdler will graduate from South Portland High School on Sunday and attend the University of Southern Maine next year. (Billings photo)