I would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to Californian, the first person to answer my question, "about what would you like to see me write?" by suggesting, "Kenny, I'd like to know how you got from 'here' to there. You know, middle school in Newport all the way to Michigan and a doctorate program." I have decided to procrastinate housekeeping at least one more post, because I believe that feedback should be encouraged, since I want it.
This is a hard question to answer, since life is an incredibly complicated thing and many factors play into each decision, so I acknowledge that my answer is less an answer to your question and more my opinion on why I am here, which is my best attempt to answer the question.
A very important and early influence upon my path is the importance my parents placed on academics and learning. The fact that they were often employed at the school I attended led to an inevitable involvement by them in my education. So much so that, by the time I got to Middle School, where your question begins, they were much more hands off, having instilled the value of education early they were able to nudge me along the track, rather than metaphorically hold my hand anymore. Much of the credit belongs to them, thank you.
Reinforcing my parents were the wonderful teachers that I was exposed to along the way. There is a reason that through most of middle and high school my planned job was teaching, I was shown wonderful examples of what effect educators could have on my life. Although I did run into teachers who seemed less enthusiastic about their jobs, I cannot think of a single teacher who failed to meet my interest with corresponding suggestions about their subject. My advice to people who are in classes of some sort, and I also advise you to be in classes of some sort, is to express your interest in the subject in some fairly obvious way to your instructor. I can vouch, both from experiences as a student and as an educator, that if your instructor seems like they are phoning it in, finding a pupil that is genuinely interested is a wonderful and nigh irresistible call to satisfy that pupil's curiosity. In summary, great educators inspire students by being themselves, but even a mediocre educator will be inspired by inquiring students.
Finally, although their contribution was less personal than that of my parents and teachers, I would not be here without the generosity of many people who I will never meet. The people who endow scholarships or give math departments money to hire people definitely deserve mention. I don't know exactly who these people are in my specific case, but if you participate in such activities you make it possible for many students, myself and most of my college friends included in this group, to realize their goal of a college level education, thank you very much.
Speaking of friends, their support and commiseration has been invaluable in getting through rough patches and making the goal seem worthwhile, and the journey, as a whole, palatable. These are the people who I credit with where I am today, but there are some factors in my own life I think also affected me getting to here.
I really do enjoy learning, this may be the result of my parents and teachers but it deserves its own mention because I think it had a lot to do with my decision to continue to grad school. The choice between finding a "real" job in a depressed, and depressing, economy and continuing on to a job which required me to continue to engorge my brain, the preferred choice was obvious. I also had a rigorous academic work ethic, instilled by my parents to be sure, which grad school blew into a thousand tiny pieces.
My ineptitude socially has also been an academic asset I would say. This is not to say that one cannot be both popular and academically successful, I know people who are, but my feelings of unpopularity contributed to my academic success. Not in the obvious way of leaving me more time to devote to my studies, I have never had trouble finding something else to do with my spare time. Rather, I had something to prove to my peers. I wasn't trying to get them to notice me, or shame them for excluding me, which I don't think they did intentionally, now or at the time,. I was just trying to find my place, if I wasn't going to be well-liked I needed something to tack my self-worth to, and since I did well academically that seemed a logical candidate. Not particularly healthy, perhaps, but I believe effective.
Also, the fact that I am a social klutz helped me go to grad school. While I feel a bit more socially gratified than I did as a child, I have a Blog, so you can disagree with that if you desire, moving across the country to attend grad school is not as complicated as it would be, say, for someone in a serious relationship with another person. Not that leaving my friend circle behind hasn't been a sacrifice, hence the Blog, and I should note that a few of my colleagues are married, one even had a baby this summer(!), and a couple others are in ostensibly healthy relationships, but being single made this decision at least half as challenging as it would otherwise have been.
So there you have it, I am here because I had great support as a child and because I am a bit messed up, which is OK. In your question you go on to say that my story is anomalous, and I am unsure how true that is. From my class in Newport we sent someone to MIT, and another to Harvard, and I'm sure a bunch of other students to well qualified but less celebrified schools. I know of at least one other student from my class of WHS who is getting a doctorate of some flavor, at least one master's student, though I think there are more, and many who attended some university or another. So, don't sell short the education that we received, I think that we are doing just fine. Thanks again for the question, hope the answer wasn't to enormous, now I'm going to go for a walk.