Thursday, January 22, 2009

Happy 41st Birthday

My friend Deena, me, Ken, and our grandpa
after a Swarthmore football game in 1986

I know I have been MIA from this blog for a while. Sometimes, I just need to get away from it. (I apologize to those of you who sent me new memories to post. You can find the new posts directly below this one.) Since this would have been my brother's 41st birthday, I felt it was appropriate to post something new.

Around this time of year, I am always reminded of what I was doing in 1988. You see, as an eleventh grade English teacher, I get swamped with requests for college recommendations. I take them all very seriously and make them all personal. One of our guidance counselors teases me that I do more recommendations than any other teacher in our school (which is probably true). If only we received a little extra pay or benefits for all of that work! Every few years -- this year being one of them -- I have a recommendation request for Swarthmore College. It's an extremely competitive, challenging, and beautiful school. It's also the school my brother attended when he chose to take his life.
Back in 1987, I was knee-deep in my college search. I had wonderful help from my parents who instilled in me the value of education and who genuinely seemed to enjoy touring various campuses with me. It also helped that my parents had lots of previous knowledge about colleges from my brother's search and their own wisdom. I wasn't the intellectual marvel or athlete that Ken was, but I had lots of extra-curricular activities in high school and a low tolerance for any grade that wasn't an "A." I also wanted to continue my involvement in music, even though I wasn't sure I would add this as a major (of course, I did decide to double-major and also complete secondary education certification; education was not a major nor a minor at my liberal arts college). I found several colleges I was interested in, and I narrowed them down to my top three. At some point, Ken nagged me to apply to Swarthmore, too. Ha! I thought. What a joke! They would never accept me. I am a realist (even though I admit that I have the occasional lofty dream). So I knew for a fact that my normal SAT scores would not qualify me for admission to such a prestigious college. My high school guidance counselor -- who couldn't pick me out of a line-up, by the way -- recommended that with excellent grades like mine, I should "try harder" the next time I took the SAT. (This is the same man who offered me the "guidance" that I should quit band and take physics instead. Try telling that to my music teacher parents and to the colleges who offered me music scholarships). Anyway, solely because I didn't want to hurt Ken's feelings, I sent away for a Swarthmore application.

One afternoon, soon after all of the college deadlines had passed, I remember sitting in our family room with my high school boyfriend. We were watching a brand new television show, and I was sitting on the carpeted floor. Ken came in and scoffed at the show. "What are you watching?!?" he asked with annoyance after a few seconds. "It's called The Oprah Winfrey Show," I told him. (Maybe I did know a thing or two back then after all!) He changed the subject and asked me how the college application and scholarship process was going. I told him the schools that had made the cut. He looked dismayed. "What about Swarthmore?" he asked. Now, I really never had any true intention of applying to Swarthmore and setting myself up for a rejection letter. Didn't he have any idea how smart he was? I would never be that smart. I told him what the deal breaker had been. "Swarthmore had three essay questions, Ken. Hard essay questions." Never mind that writing was my forte and that I wanted to be an English major. "I would have never gotten accepted to Swarthmore," I continued convincingly. I know all these years later that there was no chance of me ever being accepted there.

But Ken made a face. Then he said something I will never forget for the rest of my life. A sentence that has haunted me for all of these years after. "Oh....well, I spent a half hour in the admissions office telling them all the reasons why they should accept you." I can barely even type that. It hurts me to the core now just like it did then. And I doubt he would have ever told me had I actually applied.

I still know I wouldn't have been accepted. But why didn't I just complete the darn application? Why couldn't I have just done it for him? I had no idea that he really wanted me to go there and share his small college campus with him until then. What if I had been miraculously accepted and I could have been there for him when he needed me the most? What if...what if...what if....

I only got to visit my brother at Swarthmore a few times. My junior and senior years of high school were chock-full of commitments every single weekend for band, show choir, and private flute and vocal lessons, not to mention all of my academic commitments and what was left for my social calendar. But I will never forget the image that greeted me when I arrived at Ken's dorm room. This picture -- blown up -- was on his door for all to see:

Ken and Kristin, 1973

He never explained to me why that picture was taped to his door. But it made me proud. And when I think back to the memories I have of Ken, the Swarthmore application and this photo often come to mind as proof of how much my big brother cared. He wasn't especially fond of showing his emotions, but these two memories are reminders to me when I need them. While our relationship was often typical of a brother and sister who lived to agitate one another, I also have a few gems like these to remember what a gift he was to me and my family.

So, happy birthday, Ken. Thanks for believing in me when I didn't believe in myself, and thanks for being almost as proud to be my big brother as I was to be your little sister.


Sally T. Forrest said...

Kristin, as always, I am touched and moved by the insights shared on this site by you and by Ken's many, many friends. Ken is- and was- proud of you.

Lisa said...

That was so very beautifully written, Kristin. I am tearing up even though I never knew Ken. I'm so sorry for your ongoing loss of not having him here in your life now.

Gemma said...

Very beautiful. I learn more and more about your relationship w. Ken all the time. And I treasure the knowledge.

angela said...

I miss Ken.
I will never forget when Ken called me out of the blue, well it wasn't really that much out of the blue as he had rang my mom for my phone number, so I had a bit of a heads up.
I always thought he was such a foxy guy, such a nice guy and so smart...I was really nervous. I remember standing at the our dorm pay phone sweating,
---Ken was like the high school superstar---
when he rang that day "lets get together sometime, since we are so close" (I was going to art school in Philly and Ken at Swathmore)
I nearly fainted.
I wish I would have jumped on a bus that day and met him somewhere.