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Mastering Life

When I picked up the 2009 summer issue of the University of Kentucky’s Kentucky Alumni magazine, I was dazzled by the smiling face looking back at me.

She was not just a college graduate. She was not just summa cum laude (the greatest honor of highest academic achievement). She was not the usual—what could I say? I was speechless, but I read on.

She’s Kelsey Curd Ladt. She’s from Paducah.

She’s 14 years old.

Fourteen? Yes. She began college when she was 11.

What was I doing when I was 14 and the August sun was telling me another school year was just around the aching corner?

I was beginning the ninth grade, my mind awash in colliding rectangles, squares, and parallelograms. I didn’t know what college was, much less graduating from it with “highest academic achievement.” I couldn’t dribble the ball, much less slam-dunk it.

According to Linda Perry’s cover story in the summer 2009 Kentucky Alumni, 14-year-old Kelsey Curd Ladt “has known from the time she was very young that she wanted to be involved in medicine.”

So did I, but I allowed an army of other things to lead me down other paths. There was something missing. What could they have been? Maybe it was the gift of believing in myself? Maybe it was a fear of not being liked by others? Maybe there were several lazy bones in my body. I think that was it. Or all three.

Kelsey was encouraged by her parents Vickie and Ric Ladt—a family that has shared a passion for excellence. When someone inherits brilliance and then wastes no time to build on it, such an inspired individual has the richest of opportunities to benefit others who are in desperate need. Hello, Kelsey Curd Ladt.

Last summer, she did research at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. Her mother joined her there and Kelsey’s father visited on weekends. Neuroscience is Kelsey’s main research interest (the nervous system and its infinite complexities).

The field I was so late in discovering and mastering has been literature and its infinite complexities. As I write in the golden time of my life, I still have difficulty reading Faulkner and Joyce. My memory bank account is sometimes overdrawn, and my systematic deposits have a hard time keeping up.

Along comes a 14-year-old graduate of the University of Kentucky, possibly the youngest alumna, and I am encouraged to keep working at what I know best. At the same time I wish to acknowledge that college is not everything.

Some of my best friends didn’t make it past high school. I won’t name them, because there’s no reason to doubt their God-given talents. Some are musicians. Some are farmers. Some just know how to fix things. Some have the best of hearts. And I love them all, each one, for their honesty.

If I have any advice for a 14-year-old college graduate, it would be to stay balanced in daily relationships, remember how different each of us is, and never fall victim to the mistaken belief that life can be lived by test tubes alone.

At the same time, aspiring writers should remember to use words with the greatest of care. One should question whether words don’t wound, don’t break bones as much as sticks and stones.

Yes, even the youngest of doctors are fated. And so are those who take pen in hand or keyboard unto fingers. Disappointments lie waiting in the bulrushes of passing generations. Are we not all together in this complicated arrangement called “life?”

I close with these heartfelt words for Kelsey: do stay focused, do move on in the flow toward even greater excellence, but more than anything else, never lose faith.

I think I see these values in that broad smile and eyes that dance with excitement.

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