Free State High graduation: Student taking his enthusiasm to Russia, Harvard

Free State High School graduating senior Kenneth Palmer will be attending Harvard in the fall and, though he has yet to decide on a major, he is considering an eventual career in journalism, among other professions.

If something interests Kenneth Palmer, he’s not just going to happily do the requisite work and call it a day.

Andrea York, a former teacher of his at Free State High School, remembers a time when her U.S. history course had finished without the class having read the whole textbook. Kenneth held on to it to finish.

But the most extreme example might be how he’s spending his summer. After taking a European history course, he became somewhat interested in Russia, talking about it every now and then in front of his family.

Free State High School graduation

When: 7 p.m. May 20

Where: Free State High School football stadium, 4700 Overland Drive. Inclement weather would push the ceremony into Allen Fieldhouse, 1651 Naismith Drive.

So he put his name in the hat of a scholarship program that would take him there. And now he finds himself one month away from the trip that includes intensive classes for a language he had never studied before being accepted.

And he’s already planning on keeping the studies going once he gets to Harvard University next fall.

“I just figured I should go for it because I didn’t have anything to do in the summer,” says Palmer, who will graduate alongside 350 classmates from Free State High School on May 20.

After hearing that, the family launches into the teasing.

“Kenneth loves (Russian President Vladimir) Putin,” his 16-year-old sister, Lydia, jokes. “Publish that.”

“You can take your shirt off for the picture” to channel Putin, his mom, Juana Simons, says.

Kenneth spent most of his formative years in Lawrence, raised by Juana, who does education and outreach at The Merc, and his father, Caleb Palmer, a financial analyst. He has one other sister, Sophia, 21.

Although both parents continued their education after high school, Palmer is all set to be the first in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college. He’s not sure what his major will be, but he says he wants his career to be about service and humanitarian work.

Harvard was not the school Palmer expected to attend. Liberal arts schools like Williams College and Amherst College caught his attention. And he didn’t have a set of helicopter parents who were grooming him for an Ivy League life.

Much like the trip to Russia he scored, he figured “why not” and sent Harvard an application. What those admissions officers probably liked to see in that file was his general curiosity and the zeal he’s shown in the topics that interest him most.

When he was a freshman, he spent time walking from club to club just to check out what kinds of things they did. He appeared on KCUR radio station last fall to talk about the “taboo” of political discourse among most high school students. He also helped found a student group whose mission was to better communicate what it meant to be an atheist, agnostic or just areligious.

“If I really liked (the subject), and I generally did, I was really engaged with it,” Palmer says. “If I don’t really, really like it, I have a hard time doing it.”

His family says his interests are what pulled him out of an intense shyness. As a child, he could go long stretches without talking and would not even pretend to sing on stage during school choirs.

But over the last few years he’s done things like stage elaborate poetry slams in class and form a two-man band (called Sexy Jesus) that features his “high-falsetto, nonsensical” singing.

He hopes to join choir or an a cappella outfit at Harvard — as well as the student newspaper and some kind of community service group.

Whatever path he chooses to take, he probably won’t do it quietly.

“He’s gong to make major waves and change in a positive way,” York, his teacher, said.