In early 2011, Scott Sayles III was skipping high school on a regular basis, failing many of his classes and hanging out with the wrong crowd in his Buffalo, N.Y., neighborhood.
He lived with his grandmother and he hadn’t seen his father since he was 6.
But a single moment set off a series of events that changed everything. He would move to Charlotte. Slowly get his act together. Amaze his guidance counselor by squeezing almost two years of study into one to graduate on time. And even change his name.
It all started when he sent a Facebook request to a man he thought might just be his dad.
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Scott was born in 1994. In 1995, his father joined the Marines to support the family, and his maternal grandmother took him in while his dad was on tour. A custody battle would later ensue while his father was still in the military, and Scott’s grandmother gained full custody.
When his father, Scott Sayles, Jr., returned to Buffalo in 1999, he couldn’t find his son: “They were gone.” He’d heard rumors that they’d moved to California.
He moved to Charlotte in 2008 and hoped he’d eventually reconnect with Scott. “I knew he knew who his dad was without a doubt,” he said. “It was just a matter of time before I found him or he found me.”
The power of Facebook
Meanwhile, Scott remained in Buffalo, where his prospects looked bleak, given his behavior both in and outside of school. (Then he was known as Romeé Peterson, which is the name he was legally given at age 9 by his grandmother. He just changed back to his birth name, Scott Sayles III, last week, his dad said.)
Scott said he’d always wanted his dad in his life, and that he remembered him from visitation weekends when he was a little boy. “I already knew he was cool as ever,” he said.
Scott’s grandmother made him go to church often. In the youth group, Scott had access to computers and in the spring of 2011, he typed his dad’s name into Facebook.
Scott had a hit – but he wasn’t sure if it was his dad because the profile picture was of a lion.
“I sent a friend request and next thing you know, I have a message with three paragraphs,” he recalled.
It was a life-changing moment for his dad, too. “It blew my mind,” Sayles said. “I was ecstatic, in total disbelief.”
The first phone call came soon after. “He said, ‘You don’t know how long I’ve been looking for you,’” Scott said. “It was sentimental.”
In that first conversation, the father had three initial questions for his son:
Do you smoke? Scott lied and said no.
Do you have a girlfriend? No, but he liked girls.
And finally: “You know I’m coming to get you, right?”
Scott said: “OK, I’ll be waiting.”
The big visit
Scott started cutting grass to get money for a cell phone, and Sayles helped him pay the bill so they could communicate more easily.
He said his dad “sounded smart” on the phone, and Scott knew he was going to have to start doing better in school. “I figured I was going to have to change. I wanted (to make) a good second impression on him … I didn’t want him to think I was dumb.”
Sayles soon traveled to Buffalo to visit.
“It was all epic,” Scott said. “We did the whole hug thing, not in the middle of the street, but off on the sidewalk.”
Sayles said he was amazed by his son.
“I was almost infatuated, I couldn’t stop looking at him and making sure he was all right,” he said. “It was unforgettable.”
Cleaning up his act
Still in Buffalo, Scott thought about doing better at school but continued to skip classes and missed some of his final exams. He began to worry what his father would think.
“He’s not going to have that good impression when he sees my report card and transcript,” Scott fretted.
Around Thanksgiving 2011, he moved to Charlotte to live with his dad. He was excited to live in a real house for the first time.
Sayles made clear things would have to change. He said his son initially coped with new surroundings by hanging with another bad crowd. One day he brought home a 4 out of 100 on a test.
“I shut it down,” Sayles said. “I took away the TV, phone, laptop.”
He gave his son chores, monitored homework, and otherwise kept him on a short leash. After a while, Scott brought home an 80.
Sayles said tough love wasn’t always easy. “It’s hard for me because I’m a friendly guy, but you can’t blur the lines of father and friends,” he said. “Father comes first.”
Catching up and starting over
Independence High was not like any Scott said he’d attended: “Everybody wanted to graduate. They took their education seriously.”
By the start of his senior year in fall 2012, he learned he had 11 high school credits complete. He needed 24 to graduate.
After working with Ashley Blount, his guidance counselor, he decided to finish – and pass – 13 classes his senior year. The norm at Independence is to take eight classes per year.
“It was crazy,” Blount said.
Scott got up every morning at 5 a.m. to catch the school bus and skipped lunch to work in the library. He also took a Spanish class online.
For the first semester, four days a week he’d take the bus home, walk 15 to 20 minutes to a public bus stop, take a ride to the uptown bus station, attend night school from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m., take another bus back and walk home. Then he’d eat, do chores, finish homework and go to bed around 1 or 2 a.m.
“I wasn’t tired immediately, but then when I’d go to a boring class... I would die,” he said.
Scott said he was simply determined to make his family proud.
“I said, ‘I’m going to do it, I’ll get it done no matter what.’ I’m kind of feeling like the man now that I actually did it.”
Blount said she was proud of Scott, who completed seven classes his first semester and six the second.
“It’s just unbelievable he did it,” she said. “He really did an amazing job.”
Scott graduated in June, and he wants to be a defense attorney in corporate law. He’s been accepted at Central Piedmont Community College, he said. He’s contemplating taking classes there for two years, then transferring to UNC Charlotte.
“I want to get into law school as soon as possible,” he said. “I want to learn everything about business I can.”
His dad, who works as a cell tower technician, said he’s just happy his son is finally home.
“He’s with me,” he said, smiling. “We’re together.”