Jeff Shogren couldn't wait to surprise his favorite teacher with a new computer tablet. But to Karen Flaherty, having Shogren in her class was the real gift.

Shogren, a former Coon Rapids High School student now enrolled in the Anoka-Hennepin district's Bridges program, entered Dell Outlet's national teacher appreciation contest, writing about his "favorite teacher," Flaherty.

That he wrote the winning essay and won two Dell XPS tablets — one for him and one for Flaherty — hardly begins to tell the story of Jeff's gift.

"We want our students to be successful," said Flaherty, who has been a vocational coordinator for 13 years and has worked with special education kids a total of 19 years. "Jeff is a real success story."

Shogren describes himself as "learning disabled." He said his birth mother tried to hide her pregnancy and starved herself. He says he doesn't know much about her; she died when he was little.

Jeff and his siblings grew up in foster care in Ramsey County before he and two brothers were adopted by Randy and Mary Shogren, Randy Shogren said. Jeff was 8 when he left foster care. He and his younger brother, Thomas, now 13, still live with Randy, a night maintenance worker, and Mary, who works at Medtronic.

He's happy and remarkably well-adjusted, considering how life started. He loves sports — especially soccer and softball — and has played for adaptive teams that have won state tournaments, his dad says. He likes to hunt, fish and camp, enjoys Twins games, loves working with his hands. He's personable — so much so that he's earned 5 percent-off gift cards at his job at a Target store "from customers, for doing so well," said Flaherty.

He's worked the cash register at Target, cleaned the staff lounge and worked as a cart attendant. He's observant. He knows that one co-worker can't function without her coffee in the morning and that another eats only chunky peanut butter.

"I want to do well, maybe move up," he said. "One of the head guys started as a cart attendant. You have to start somewhere, right?"

Flaherty knew that Jeff was a hard worker with great people skills. She helped him with his job-application process by staging mock interviews. The rest, she hoped, would work itself out.

"He's always showed up every day. He tries his hardest," she said. "That's what employers want."

When his mom told him about the Dell contest, Jeff knew what he wanted to write. With his mom typing for him, Jeff condensed his feelings into one simple paragraph:

"My teacher, advisor Ms Flaherty has helped me a lot. She is a good teacher and makes sure I understand what she is teaching even if it means she has to repeat herself. I have a learning disability. I take longer to learn but Ms Flaherty is always patient with me and the other students in her classes. I will be going to a transition program this fall and I will miss Ms Flaherty because she helped me get my first real paying job through the school and she teach me a lot and she a nice person. My mom type this for me but I tell her what to say OK. Hope I win and Ms Flaherty win as she's a really good teacher and I could learn more with a tablet."

In August, Jeff learned that he'd won the contest and the two tablets. But he didn't tell Flaherty.

On Sept. 16, Flaherty was summoned to the high school conference room. There was "trouble," she was told, that she needed to attend to immediately.

"I walked in that room and did I have a shocked look on my face."

There was Jeff Shogren, with a Dell tablet. "I have one," he said. "Now you have one. This is the thing I won for you."

Flaherty broke into tears. At that moment, it was hard to imagine who had given the greatest gift to whom.

"In the back of your mind, you're always wondering if you've done enough for your student to succeed," Flaherty said.

As she spoke, Jeff began explaining to those surrounding him how to use the tablet.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419