The pins and intersections of Trevor Ladner’s upbringing mark his path of educational success.
From his grandmother’s living room to Hancock High School’s graduation ceremony, his parents say, Ladner’s intellect has always been ahead of his years — and it’s what got him into Harvard University.
“He’s always been a perfectionist, and he’s never been competitive …,” said mom Mary Ladner. “He just wanted to be the best to his own standards, and they were always very high.”
Before he even got to kindergarten, he practiced penmanship with his grandmother.
“When Mary’s mom kept him,” said his father, Wade Ladner, “we would come in the afternoon, and he would have pages and pages where he would just sit down and write his name to have it perfect.”
Mary Ladner said her mom still has his third-grade project hanging on her wall. The assignment was to create a poster board about a country, and he picked Germany.
“It looks like a high school student made it,” she said.
He’s always been a perfectionist, and he’s never been competitive … He just wanted to be the best to his own standards, and they were always very high.
By then, his parents weren’t surprised by the quality of his work.
“Even at 8, it was normal for us to see Trevor put something together like that, so it wasn’t mind-blowing,” she said.
Ladner attended a private Christian elementary school, and his dad credits that for his curiosity as an independent learner. The school was small, so he often had classes with older children.
In fourth grade, competing against juniors and seniors, he won the school’s spelling bee. Family and friends couldn’t believe it.
“To us, we just giggled,” Mary Ladner said. “I remember it was not shocking to us. It’s just typical Trevor.”
Climbing the ranks
As a Hancock High freshman, Trevor Ladner said, he didn’t think the title of valedictorian or salutatorian was in reach.
“I didn’t feel like I could be the kid who was the ‘smartest,’” he said.
He was closer to the top than he realized, though. He started at 13th, rose to eighth, then climbed more three spots. Last year, when his mom picked up a copy of his unofficial transcript, she couldn’t believe what she saw.
Class rank: 3.
“Junior year, I didn’t go on any field trips, I didn’t miss any days of school,” he said. “I didn’t want to miss a class; I wanted to be there to do my work and learn.”
His last semester was his hardest. He took Advanced Placement English IV, calculus and chemistry along with dual-credit English.
“I literally got four hours of sleep a night,” he said. “(I knew) I could work to keep that or go even higher, so I definitely started pushing myself more.”
The day before his scholarship application was due for the Tulane University Deans’ Honor Scholarship, Ladner had teeth removed. He was on pain medication as he wrote the script for the video that netted him a full scholarship to the New Orleans school and an invitation to tour Harvard. He also had 25 chemistry problems due, and other college applications to submit.
“I had to stay up all night working on those chemistry problems and I was crying,” he said.
Ladner received a little more than $608,000 in scholarship offers.
On his last few unofficial transcripts, his rank was No. 1, but he knew it would be close. His best friend, Grant Collum, was also slated for valedictorian.
On senior awards night, he found out he and Collum would sit together at graduation — as valedictorian and salutatorian.
“We really didn’t know …. We were just holding our breaths,” Mary Ladner said. “My heart was racing to see what (principal) Mrs. (Tara) Ladner said. When I heard Trevor’s name, I just felt like I could breathe.”
Ladner said receiving the honor was almost surreal.
“I’m just so hard on myself sometimes, so it was really amazing.”
Wade Ladner said his son is like a pro athlete in the classroom.
“We’re extremely proud of him as parents,” he said.
Road to Boston
Mary Ladner thought when she, Trevor and Wade Ladner went to tour Harvard it was just going to be a fun family trip before graduation — she was sure he was going to Tulane.
“I loved Tulane. He loved Tulane. We loved Tulane,” she said.
She thought it would be a perfect fit — it was in a big city but also close to home.
Harvard was not on Ladner’s original application list — his first choice was the University of Southern California, his dad said.
But that changed after Harvard noticed his Tulane scholarship video, titled “Unpack,” on gender identity and the roles it plays in society.
In the video, Trevor shows the world his drag persona, Miss Annie Thang, to illustrate the importance of acceptance, gender fluidity and not placing people or things in boxes.
On the Harvard tour he realized that was where he wanted to be, he said.
He was struck by the focus on education. The campus has 72 libraries, he said.
“Being on campus and seeing what people are learning and how substantial their discoveries were,” he said. “They wrote the book, and they’re teaching you the book.”
When he met with a gay-student organization, he said, he spoke with members for about two hours about the LGBT community and queer history.
“Just being there, I already learned so much. I can’t imagine what I’m going to learn being at Harvard for the next four years. It was like an out-of-body experience.”
Mary and Wade Ladner also loved touring the campus and are very happy for their son.
“I can’t imagine there being anyplace like it in the rest of the world,” Mary Ladner said.
Trevor Ladner said he intended to major in journalism, but he says now his goal after college is to work for an equality advocacy group. He also said he would not mind working in politics.
As he prepares to plug the address to his dorm into his GPS this summer, he said he has his family to thank for the encouragement, drive and moral support that were his first compass.
“I couldn’t be the person that I am today without their love and support,” he said. “They’ve instilled all of the basic morals that I have. ”
Mary Ladner became very emotional when asked about her son’s trip to college.
“I’ve always been close with my mom, and she’s been one of my best friends,” he said. “My mom disciplines me and makes sure I’m doing the things that are right and that I’m on top of things, but I can also talk to her about anything.”
Trevor says he sees his mother in himself, so it will help when he is living thousands of miles away.
That’s something I’ll miss is the debating, and him just being here. I’ll miss his light on at nighttime, and at 2 o’clock in the morning, opening the door (to tuck him in.)
“I’m like her mini-me,” he said. “We have the same personality, and I’m glad that I can share those bits of her with other people because she’s the greatest mom ever.”
Wade Ladner said he’ll miss having deep conversations about politics with his son and will miss going to talk with him in his bedroom — where much of the family always ends up for family meetings.
“That’s something I’ll miss is the debating, and him just being here,” Wade Ladner said. “I’ll miss his light on at nighttime, and at 2 o’clock in the morning, opening the door (to tuck him in.)”