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My mom never pushed me to be perfect in school. She was a single parent, after all, so it was an accomplishment simply to get me to school and back, with breakfast, lunch and dinner sandwiched among those ends.

Still, Mom found time to sit with me each night to help me with homework. She remarried when I was 9, a move that gave me even more assistance. My stepfather and I built models of biological and molecular structures, compiled leaf books and constructed explosive volcanoes of clay, stuffed with a ketchup bottle's worth of baking soda, primed for a vinegar eruption.

He was the only member of my immediate family to have gone to college. If I was to go, I would be the first from my genetic lineage.

Through middle and high school, my parents encouraged me to get good grades, but they never hovered. The experience was the goal, not the grades. I balanced tennis, soccer and even, for one year, marching band, with my academics. Despite the extracurriculars, my grades stayed high, with my grandmother clipping the newspaper each time I made honor roll.

Eventually, I aged out of parental assistance; A.P. chemistry equations and calculus proofs weren't dinner talk. I had to provide my own motivation, so I became obsessed with scoring as high as possible and graduating high in my class. My parents were proud of my educational feats regardless of the scores, but I always strived for more. As it turns out, that approach continues with my own young family.

After our son, Oliver, was born, we put him in day care when he was 3 months old. Oliver didn't take to day care well, so I quit my job to stay at home with him. After a year, we both returned to school—Oliver to a new day care, me to grad school. But by the time he was 2, Oliver was diagnosed with cancer, taken out of day care and thrust into a world of nurses, hospital rooms and chemo pumps.

Stacy took leave from her job, but I decided to continue with my grad school classes.

My class work started to take on the subject of Oliver's treatment: I used animation to reflect the emotional impact of cancer on a family and Oliver's blood counts as the basis for an interactive infographic interface. The grip of the hospital overtook any other conceptual aspirations I had.

When we found out our daughter, Nora, was to be born the following year, I decided to take a year off from school, expand our house and raise our daughter and son without the distraction of schoolwork. In July, Oliver started preschool. He took to it almost immediately, learning new skills daily and shocking us by writing his own name during the first week. Nora soon started a half-day program the next month. Nora has loved school—splashing water with classmates, developing hand gestures, making animal sounds. She's embracing the basics. Meanwhile, I'm back in grad school, refreshed and ready to finish.

These past few years have presented quite an unexpected journey, but in spite of cancer and a second child, education has remained a priority in our family. Both kids, like their parents, seem to love school. Indeed, I will soon catch up to Stacy, who already has a master's degree. She'll be in line for her Ph.D., so it will be her turn to juggle kids and books. Fortunately for her, they'll both be in school full-time by then; unfortunately, she'll probably have to deal with some spilled vinegar and baking soda on drafts of her thesis.

  • The experience was the goal, not the grades.

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