George Conley and Randee Nelson 2020

Randee Nelson and George Conley in 2020 in Conley’s classroom at Payson High School. Nelson recently returned to her high school alma mater to present a copy of her first published book to Conley, her former teacher.

Ten years ago, Payson High School art teacher George Conley struggled to keep student Randee Nelson in school and safe.

“All through her school career, Randee dealt with parents who had anger and substance abuse issues,” said Conley. “She was bounced around in foster care and suffered.”

Bullying from classmates didn’t help.

By the time Nelson got to PHS, she struggled with depression and self-harm.

Yet in the safe space of Conley’s classroom, Nelson found the strength and support to complete high school, graduate and now she’s written a novel.

On Dec. 14, Nelson published her first book in the magical realism genre.

The heroine of Nelson’s story is Rose, a high school student who struggles to deal with her alcoholic father, who drinks to forget her mother, who died. Amidst the chaos, an old friend rises from the grave to help Rose remember her repressed childhood memories, including the fact that she’s a mythical creature.

Nelson recently came back to Conley’s classroom to give him a signed copy of her book, then donated it to the PHS library.

Conley felt so touched, he calls the book his “most prized possession.”

But he also had compassion for the situation. Nelson had had a really tough time.

“After teaching art at Payson High School for two-and-a-half decades, I’ve come to realize that our students are a lot like flowers — some bloom early and some bloom late, and blooming is more important than when they bloom,” he said.

Nelson has reminded him to never give up on his kids, “as not all of our kids reach their peak during the last month of their senior year.”

“I’m proud of Randee for her success as an author, and for blossoming into the outstanding person she has become today,” said Conley.

Contact the reporter at mnelson@payson.com

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