The Graduate by Michael Winerip, N.Y. Times
Seems like that's all anybody wanted to know the last few weeks of the summer of 2003. "When are you leaving, Chris?" asked Sean Howard, principal of Russell High School. Most graduates in this small eastern Kentucky town of 4,000 went either to the local community college or to a state university. But each year a few of the brightest, like Chris Wiliams, attended college out of state.
"Getting ready to go, Chris?" asked Debbie Blankenship, a school secretary. Everyone here knew of Chris, the young man who scored a perfect 36 on the ACT college admissions test. Of the 400,000 who had taken it the previous fall, only 58 scored a 36. Just two of those students were from Kentucky.
"Russell Senior Proves You Can Be Perfect," read the front-page headline in The Daily Independent. The accompanying photo was seven inches high. "Random people I met were amazed," Chris said.
A few days after that, John Cannon, the opinion-page editor, made Chris the subject of the lead editorial. "Expect great things from this exceptional student," wrote Cannon, who, as the Independent's only opinion-page writer, knocked out 14 editorials a week and admitted to sometimes having trouble coming up with that many opinions. But Cannon had no problem at all forming an opinion about Chris Williams.
"You know what I'm hoping?" Cannon remarked. "That Chris will consider coming back to Kentucky someday. We've had a brain drain that's severe. Our best minds leave. Kentucky needs bright young people."
When adults ask how you get a perfect score, they're hoping to hear the name of a great tutor or test-prep book. "We live in a world of words," says Chris's mother, Susan, a third grade teacher and the fourth generation of women in her family to teach.
Chris did virtually no test preparation. "My goal was to make this home full of books, full of learning, full of curiosity," Susan adds. She read to her two boys and kept it up long after both of them could read on their own. When Chris was nine and his younger brother, David, was five, she read aloud The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. "It took months," Susan said.
The Williamses selected their home because it was close to school. Chris's walk was five minutes on a wooded path behind Russell High. He was on several of the school's academic teams, winning the Governor's Cup for top state science student and also coming in eighth in the writing competition. "I think that was one of your emotional highs," his mother said to him. "Yeah," Chris replied. "I always said that I wanted to see someone get Top 10 in science and writing, and you did."
"Yeah," Chris said.
He became an Eagle Scout, and then an assistant scoutmaster. He helped his father, Tad, a Marathon Petroleum engineer, run Troop 161 at First Christian Church.
"I'll miss all the Tuesday night Scout meetings," Chris said.
A quiet boy, Chris found it hard to explain the things he would miss about Russell. The blue, red, orange and green-colored duct tape that was perfect for science projects and that you could only buy at Rail City Hardware. The Fire Side antiques shop, which also rented tuxedos. The walkway on the bridge across the Ohio River that was closed in summer because falcons nest there. A place without a lot of pretense.
"They had a contest to name the new Russell primary school," Tad Williams said. "The winning name was Russell Primary School."
Chris said, "I'll miss random talks with Mom. We'd talk about how strange high school is socially." Asked if he was leaving behind a girlfriend, Chris replied, "I escaped high school girlfriend-free."
His mother would miss their talks too. "High school isn't the easiest place for a boy like Chris," she said. "I told him you get typed as an academic and there's only so much people think you can be. I told him it wouldn't always be like that. At college, people would get older and be more interesting."
There was a ribbon for finishing fifth in a cross-country race, his valedictorian plaque, a trophy topped with a cat's skull )presented to the top anatomy student), old Boys' Life magazines and two pairs of size 13 hiking boots.
"Mom's good about it," Chris said. "She says if I'm willing to live in it, I can."
All week Susan crammed in final bits of advice. She reminded him that in a big city, you don't walk alone at midnight. The family was watching the film Hamlet, and when Polonius said, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be," Susan remarked, "Good advice, Chris."
"I know it's silly," she said later. "These are things you teach over the course of a lifetime, but I just couldn't help myself."
On Friday the family packed the van and drove the 270 miles to Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, arriving just as a major blackout ended and power returned.
Chris was accepted to every college he applied to, but he turned down Duke because it offered him no money. He spent the summer of 2002 at a Kentucky scholars' camp aimed at keeping bright students in the state and was offered a full ride to the University of Kentucky, but turned that down. There was no undergraduate program in biomedical engineering. His dream, for now, was to design skin-graft techniques or develop cancer treatments.
At Case Western, the Williams family stood in line with Chris while he registered. They helped him get his dorm room set up, attended several events for families, and bought him extra soap. On Sunday afternoon they left for home.
No one cried, and Susan had one last piece of advice.
"I know you're a worker," she said to her son. "But make sure to join a few things and have fun."
Tad Williams talked to Chris about returning to Kentucky someday. "I don't see that as a probability," Chris told his father. "They don't have the research I'm interested in."
"But in eight years, when you finish grad school?" his dad pressed.
"Who knows?" Chris replied.
One morning not long after the family returned home from dropping Chris off, Susan Williams peeked into David's room. She wanted to make sure her younger boy was up for school. Then she looked in on Chris's room.
It was immaculate and empty now.
"There's a Christopher-shaped hole here," she admitted. "But it's okay. This is what he needs to be doing now."
Michael Winerip, N.Y. Times