Thursday, April 28, 2016

Ivy League

When Kellen got to the age that he started considering college, the one nugget of advice we constantly gave was don't go into debt. You see Tim and I were extremely unwise with our use of college debt. In fact, I just recently paid off the last of that debt. We had been burned, and as parents tend to do, we swung the pendulum way to the other side insisting that college debt should never happen.

In Kellen's high school years it became clear that he would qualify for the Promise  Scholarship. We always told him he could go wherever he wanted while encouraging him to avoid student loans like the plague and not pass on what would could be a debt free education. He seemed to buy into this theory, and I looked forward to having him closer to home for college. Little did I know.

Turns out Kellen had the scores to qualify for Ivy League schools. Turns out Ivy League schools have very generous need based scholarships. Turns out Kellen was accepted to three, and today he committed to go to Dartmouth with a financial package that includes work study, but no loans and an expected family contribution about equal to what he can earn in a summer. Um ok. . .

Of course, I am thrilled for him, and sad that his dad isn't here to see this all play out, and sad that I am entering the empty nest, and excited to watch the man he is becoming, and . . . well name an emotion. I probably am feeling it, but I am awfully proud of this kid.

People often want to give a lot of credit to the way Tim and I raised him, and while I appreciate that, I can't really take credit. The most I can say about that is our natural tendency to be kind of hands off free range parents fit well with his natural curiosity and love of learning. I can assure you that has not worked as well with all the kids.

Kellen always loved books. His vocabulary was large. He talked and read maybe just a tad later than the average, but once he started, he never stopped. One of his college essay topic was "Give a recent example of a time when you embodied intellectual curiosity." I can give you a not so recent example.

He was in the first grade I think. His older cousin came to visit, and she had multiplication homework to do. Kellen wanted me to teach him multiplication. I refused. He was still mastering addition. I didn't want to confuse him. He figured it out anyway. He didn't have the tables memorized, but he understood how it worked. These are the more recent examples he gave in his essay.

Canadian winters are cold, and once they get cold, they stay cold. In Ottawa, the capital city of Canada, the city’s canal system is rebrushed daily, making it the world’s largest resurfaced ice skating rink. The members of parliament can skate into work. Or, so I’ve been told; I’ve never been to Canada in the winter. Yet, somehow, I’m considered my school’s resident expert on the country, and the only real reason is curiosity.

My interest was first sparked in the summer of 2014, by my summer camp RA. He was a
student at the University of Toronto. For the rest of the camp, I pestered him for details on Canada. Being a proud citizen, he happily obliged, even hosting a mock ­lecture on Canadian culture.

That fall in her geography class, my sister was given a large, nine week project on the
Yukon Territories, and I was given the task of helping her. However, in the process of helping her research, our knowledge of obscure Canadian trivia increased exponentially. Did you know the official mineral of Alberta is petrified wood? It is.

941,161. It’s not really a special number. It’s odd. Its prime factorization is 13x13x5569.
It’s the hypotenuse of the right triangle with legs 315480 and 886711. It’s not a perfect square, and it’s not prime. It’s really not a significant number at all except for one thing. 941,161 is the number of points I’ve accrued over four years on the Khan Academy.

Honestly the points don’t mean anything. They’re not something I walk around bragging
about, but they are a point of personal pride to me. Those points are a representation of the time I’ve spent learning things on my own without any outside prompting.
The pinnacle of my time on Khan Academy came in the winter of 2014. In school, I was
stuck in the dredges of Algebra II. The concept of imaginary numbers intrigued me, but an introduction to “i” wasn’t scheduled for several more months. At home, I watched a few videos on complex numbers, but they didn’t satisfy my mathematical cravings. Feeling ambitious, I decided to teach myself calculus. I did it, too. Not completely, and definitely not with complete understanding, but using Khan Academy I taught myself basic derivatives.
Over four years, I used the Khan Academy quite a bit. I never took a full math course on
it or used it to do anything except alleviate boredom, but throughout the last few years it has been my constant companion for indulging my academic curiosity.

I can't tell you the number of times Kellen has shared some random fact with me, and I've asked, "Where did you learn that?" His response is always something along the lines of he saw something about it on such and such, went to research it, read an article, and that is why he knows it.

When he was little it was from books. Now it is from the internet, but the kid has always been interested in learning about a wide variety of topics. He reads about it, and then he knows it. I had nothing to do with that except providing him with frequent library trips and internet access.

He was born with this gift of intellectual curiosity and understanding. It has opened the doors to a debt free Ivy League education. I am simply thankful and a little amazed.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016


Tomorrow would have been Tim's 40th birthday. It seems like this would be a day to remember how wonderful he was, or how much we miss him. While these things certainly are true, the only thing I can feel about this day is ripped off.

I am angry. I am not sure who I am angry at, but I do know why. He was entirely too young. It is so unfair. I hate that he never got to see any of our kids graduate, get married, or meet our grandchildren. I hate that we didn't have those golden years together, the ones we talked about having when the kids were all grown and gone. I hate that for every special event of the kids' lives, he will be announced as the "late" Timothy Appleton.

And I guess I don't hate these things for his sake. Truly, he is better off. So, I guess I hate these things for myself and for the kids. I hate that I have to be the one to console the children when I don't even know how to console myself.

I hate that Vivian came into my room tonight crying. When I asked her why she was crying she told me because she didn't want to go to college. She is 10. Of course, that wasn't the root of the emotion. The root was a double whammy. She is scared of losing me. That isn't the first time she has expressed that. What can you say to that? How do you reassure a hurting child without making promises she knows all to well that you may not be able to keep?

The other root of the issue was a first. She said she didn't want to move. Previously she has been the most excited about moving. Tonight she said she didn't want to move because this place reminded her of her daddy. Because everywhere she looked she saw something he did or something he worked on. Ironically, these are some of the biggest reasons I want to move.

How is this even fair? I've been ripped off. The kids have been ripped off.

Grief is raw and ugly. It sometimes smacks you in ways you don't expect. I've vented. I've cried. I will feel better about this in the morning.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Essay One - Kellen

This kid, he is pretty special. I remember when he was little how people would gush with comments about his intelligence. Yes, I knew he was smart, but I didn't want to be one of those parents. You know, the kind that go on and on about their kid. Yes, their kid is great at such and such, but their really not all that. Come on, you know what I mean.

I remember his preschool teacher helped to keep that perspective. He was four. All my questions for her were academic in nature. She squashed that by telling me Kellen was fine academically, but she'd seen kids who could do more. She went on to say she wasn't focused on that so much as she was on their social development and interaction, and he needed to work on that. Well!  Hmph! Ok, she was right.

We chose homeschooling from the beginning, partly (alright, largely) because of the area we were living in, but also because he was above average academically. I'd been in the classroom with above average boys, and let me tell you, at the middle school level these boys were bored. They didn't care about being challenged. They were content to sit back, create problems in the classroom, and get their A's and B's without trying. Oh no! Not my son!

I think maybe because we homeschooled and because he was my first, I didn't realize how far above average he was. Truthfully, I am thankful for that. We never pushed him. We never overwhelmed him with activities and enrichments. He was naturally curious. He naturally recalled just about everything he read or heard. He always thought about things a little differently than the rest of us. We simply provided an atmosphere where he could explore his interests. Yes, we had textbooks, but a lot of time was spent at the library, in the woods, at museums, or just at home with a strict screen time limit.

It was around middle school (darn that age!) where Kellen started to discover for himself his relative intelligence, and he was quick to let you know. Apologies to all in our homeschool circle at that time. He did get a little big for his britches. Thankfully, (for all of us) a little maturity and some trips to CTY helped to humble him.  Sadly, difficult life circumstances have also kept him humble and given him perspective.

If you know Kellen, you know he will talk about facts and information until your head is spinning, but he doesn't often talk about personal things. College applications required him to write about some of these things. He wrote some beautiful essays. With his permission, I am going to share some of them here. I'm sharing them because I'm proud of him, but also because this blog often serves as our family scrapbook, and I want those essays to be a part of that.

The question:
We are interested in learning more about you and the context in which you have grown up, formed your aspirations, and accomplished your academic successes. Please describe the factors and challenges that have most shaped your personal life and aspirations. How have these factors helped you to grow?

Kellen's essay:
The weight plummeted to the ground, the arm flew, and the rock whistled through the sky before hitting the gravel with a distant thud. The first thing my family’s farm taught me was to learn by doing. Because of that, I built my trebuchet. Time for the second shot. I pulled the arm to the ground. A quick hand wave signaled my brother to load the rock. I released the arm. The weight plummeted, the arm swung, and the whole trebuchet collapsed into a heap of broken wood. The second thing I learned is that nothing goes as planned. A few weeks of hard work later, and I had reconstructed the trebuchet. The third thing I learned is that failure is just something to learn from.
When I was seven, my family moved to my grandparents’ farm in West Virginia. Everyone had plans. My grandfather planned to run the farm into his seventies and my dad planned to help. My parents planned to homeschool their children. For a while, the plans worked. My grandfather bought a tractor and a bulldozer. My dad took a job selling music, but was able to help out in the evenings and on the weekends. My mom gardened and taught my siblings and I at home. 
Farms are incubators of curiosity. Growing up, I was surrounded by equipment, tools, electricity, and mechanics. Animals constantly lived, grew, reproduced, and died all around me. Every day I asked the questions, “Why, what, and how?” How does this valve control the water flow? What materials stop electricity? Why does this motor spin? If I cut this tree, will it fall on that power line? I found my answers by pure exploration. Valves got taken apart. I touched different tools to the electric fence until I found one that wouldn’t shock me. As I grew older, I discovered that math and physics held the answers to my questions. The motor spins because a current flowing through a coil around a magnet makes the magnet spin. I measured the tree using a sextant and trigonometry. When I applied my learning, I found I could answer the most important question, “How can I do this better?” With learning, I found that I could make the lives of those around me easier. 
Farming is hard. It’s a full-time commitment regardless of the circumstances. There are animals to be fed, gardens to tend, and a constant cycle of maintenance to be tackled every single day. As I said, nothing goes as planned. Just a few years after buying the farm, my grandfather was killed driving his tractor. I was 12 when he died; after that, my dad was in charge of the farm. However, farming isn’t profitable, and he still had to work a full-time job. With my dad at work, most of the day-to-day tasks were my responsibility. I condensed my schoolwork into three or four hours a day, and I spent another three or four hours working. I quickly learned to feed, weedeat, and build fences. When my dad came home from work, we worked together to finish whatever I wasn’t strong enough or skilled enough to do on my own. 
A few years later, my parents both took teaching jobs at a tiny Christian school, and my three siblings and I enrolled in the school. I was fifteen when I began attending school as a sophomore. The school wasn’t ideally equipped. There were few classes more advanced than “honors” classes, but I thrived in the newfound academic structure. The plan seemed to go well. With the extra time in the summers, the farm was more productive than ever before. However, after a year of teaching, my father had a past cancer return. As his condition worsened, I steadily assumed his responsibilities on the farm. His health spiralled downward until he died the August before my senior year. After my father’s death, all the plans we’d made became impossible. 
I’ve followed my parents' plan my entire life. Their plan didn’t work out like they hoped, but that didn’t hinder me from constantly asking questions and finding the answers. I plan to maintain that curiosity for the rest of my life. I plan to learn as much as I can for as long as I can, and to use that learning to help people do things better. Plans are only so much. Plans are imperfect. Plans fail and sometimes that can’t be helped. The only thing to be done is to look forward and keep learning.

Thursday, April 07, 2016


Tuesday I came across a notebook of family mementos my Aunt Nancy, my mother's sister, put together. I wept as I read of the death of their biological father. He died in an auto accident before my mother was born, and from the timing, I had to wonder if my grandmother even knew she was expecting at the time of the accident. I wondered how did she ever manage in that day, alone with three little children.

I read my Aunt Nancy's tribute to her stepfather, the only man my mother ever remembered as father. The man I vaguely remember as Grandpa, whom I mostly remember through repeated family stories. He died when I was 8. I wept for the loss of not knowing him better, for missing what could have been beautiful years growing up on Grandpa's Ohio farm.

I came across some maps of the Appalachian and Colorado Trails. Hiking is one of the many adventures that I associate with my dad. We lost him when three of my four children were no older than I when I lost my Grandpa. They will know their Papaw through vague memories and stories repeated. I am sad for them missing what could have been beautiful years growing up on Papaw's West Virginia farm.

And of course, Tim. I can't find words right now.

Since then, there have been been others lost. Some lived full lives, like my Great Aunt Hazel, but far too many others have been tragically early. Yesterday, as the girls and I were going about our normal day, I got the news that a friend had died.

We knew Liz and Ricky before they were married. They were two kids who played on the worship team with Tim at our church in Akron. They married shortly before we moved to West Virginia. We didn't keep in touch, but a few months ago I saw on Facebook that Ricky was sick. He needed a lung transplant. He was younger than Tim. He left four young children, the baby not yet two.

I tried to go about our day. We were on a field trip when I got the news. We had lunch with friends. We ran errands. In every quiet moment my head and heart ached for Liz and for the family. The drive home from Charleston was long and solemn.

This life is fragile. There things here to enjoy and practical things that must be attended. I implore you to enjoy those you love, to put aside petty differences, and cherish the time you have. Yes, I speak to myself here also. Get life insurance and a will, especially if you have young children or debt. Though these things are important, not so much for ourselves, but for those who are left behind, I also know they are all fleeting. They hold no eternal value. They are not life.

Lift up your eyes to the heavens, And look on the earth beneath. For the heavens will vanish away like smoke, The earth will grow old like a garment, And those who dwell in it will die in like manner; But My salvation will be forever, And My righteousness will not be abolished. - Isaiah 51:6