Decatur student headed to Harvard after math and theater helped her overcome her father's death

Decatur high school student Maddi Waskom heading to Harvard

Maddi Waskom from Decatur high school has overcome many obstacles and is now headed to Harvard.
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Maddi Waskom from Decatur high school has overcome many obstacles and is now headed to Harvard.

Madeleine "Maddi" Waskom says she is an atypical small-town Texas girl.

Growing up mostly in Decatur the 18-year-old didn't fancy riding horses. She quit sports to be in theater. When people told her to go outdoors, she pushed back with books. Next fall, when most students in the top 10 of her graduating class are going to the University of Texas or Texas A&M University, Waskom is headed to Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

"Everyone who goes to Harvard, they have the test scores, the AP classes — that's not what gets you into Harvard. Obviously," Waskom said. "I don't have the highest GPA at my school. I don't have the highest AP scores. I have a passion and I have a story. I've overcome a lot."

Waskom said she became a high-achieving student at Decatur High School largely because of the life lessons she juggled outside of classrooms — from overcoming sexual abuse from a family member, to growing up a child of divorce, to the death of her father when she was 13.

The 18-year-old found her escape in math and theater.

"Maddi is one of those kids — no matter what comes at her, she takes challenges as motivation," said Lauren Smith, a counselor at the school.

Friday, Waskom will be among 245 seniors from Decatur High School graduating. She has a 4.908 grade point average and is third in her class, behind her closest friends: the valedictorian and salutatorian — a group that jokingly describes itself as Maddi, Maddi and a Katy or "two Maddis and a Katy."

As graduation approached in early May, teachers and counselors mused that no one can definitely say who was the last Decatur graduate to be accepted to Harvard.

"It's not common," Smith said.

'Give me a word problem, Momma'

Decatur, a city of 6,648, sits in Wise County about a 40-minute drive northwest from downtown Fort Worth. The city turns to suburbs and then to country as the highway drifts into Decatur on U.S. 287.

The high school is modern, about 10 years old, in a community that dates to the 1850s. Waskom's family moved to the area so her father could be near horses. It was a small Texas town when Waskom was little and it has grown along with the teen.

“There was barely a Walmart here when we moved here," said Nicole Ferrell, Waskom's mother. "It’s not huge, but its growing.”

Her daughter didn't fit in with the country life her father loved, Ferrell said. Waskom was a "bookworm." Instead of horses, her daughter loved math. In third grade, Waskom would tell her mother: "Give me a word problem, Momma."

Ferrell said her daughter will be the first in the family to graduate from a four-year university. Ferrell, a registered nurse, has an associate's degree.

"I expected great things," Ferrell said. "She has always been driven. She always has a plan.”

Teachers said Waskom shares what she learns. For example, she recently directed a theater production called, "Alice," based on the story of "Alice In Wonderland," at the middle school.

"She is not normal — she is exceptional," said Renee Buchanan, a drama teacher at the high school.

Academics and theater offered Waskom a focus when her life included sexual abuse and her father's death, Ferrell said. Waskom reflected on those issues in a personal statement in her Harvard application.

"I never wanted to be the victim," Waskom wrote. "When people heard about my situation they would treat me differently, as if I was less human."

Waskom said she didn't want people to see her as helpless so she responded with a new motto in life: "I am going to live my best life, and not let hardship make me give up."

Waskom also shared with Harvard her frayed relationship with her father, who died of the flu.

"The last months before he died, I rarely saw him," she wrote, explaining that they had little in common and didn't talk.

"In the end, I was busy making my own happiness, and we were unable to compromise," she wrote.

'I'm going to Harvard!'

On a day in March, known as Ivy Day, Waskom drove around town waiting for 6 p.m. That was when she would find out if she was accepted at any of the Ivy League universities to which she applied. She ended up on "Jeep Hill," an area in the LBJ National Grasslands that people go to sit in nature and contemplate.

"You can see the city and you can see some cows," explained Kirsten "Katy" Wunrow, the valedictorian.

Waskom is close friends with Wunrow and Madison "Maddi" Kyle, the salutatorian for this year's graduating class. That's how the Class of 2018 came to have the "two Maddis and a Katy." Together, they plotted futures that included college in between concerts and hanging out on "Jeep Hill."

Wunrow said she has long wanted to go college outside of Texas. She dreamed of Stanford University in northern California.

Wunrow said this has been something the friends have talked about since they were younger.

"Maddi, she always wanted to see new things," Wunrow said.

In the end, Waskom applied at 27 universities, including six Ivy League schools. Waskom said her scorecard is seven acceptances, 11 wait lists and nine "nos."

One of the schools that said, "Yes," was Harvard. Waskom reacted with screams of joy.

"I'm going to Harvard!' she screamed on video, in a scene friends have described as "a happy panic attack."

Harvard offered Waskom tuition based on her financial aid application. She will get financial aid and work study to pay for her schooling at a rate tailored to her income level. Before school starts in the fall, she will attend orientations. Then, she starts majoring in math and a life outside Texas.

"It's going to be different," Waskom said. "It's going to be different going from Decatur to Harvard."