The Whiz Kids

Greg Smith, 10, is so intelligent that while most of his peers are still doing combat with long division, he’s off to college. Sounds like a script for a Doogie Howser-clone TV series, but for Greg it’s totally real. Last month the 4’6″ youngster arrived at Virginia’s Randolph-Macon College to begin his freshman year. What’s in store for kids like Greg? “I haven’t seen much evidence of kids who are truly talented being spoiled by it later,” says University of California at Santa Barbara professor emeritus Max Weiss, who has worked with gifted children. “They all find their niche.” PEOPLE spoke with Greg and some of his peers about the joys and challenges of being so talented so young.

Little man on campus

Like any father watching his son reach a milestone, Bob Smith, a publishing-company manager, was filled with emotion last month when he accompanied his only child, Greg, on his first day at Randolph-Macon in Ashland, Va., 50 miles from the home Greg still shares with his parents. “It’s difficult,” says Bob, 46, “to watch your child grow up so quickly.”

Quickly indeed. Greg was reeling off names of dinosaurs and their respective periods at age 2. At 4, he was adding sums into the quadrillions. In June, two days after his 10th birthday, he graduated from high school on the same day he lost one of his last baby teeth. And now, three afternoons a week, he excitedly recites theorems in Prof. Adrian Rice’s Calculus I. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, what do you do for fun?’ ” says Greg. “Learning is fun to me.”

That has been the case since his early childhood, when he paid unusually close attention to TV. “He didn’t have that faraway look that infants have,” says Bob. “He seemed to be studying whatever he was doing.” After college, Greg hopes to earn doctorates in biomedical research, aeronautical engineering and political science. And then, “I would like to become President of the United States as well as our ambassador to the United Nations,” he says matter-of-factly. Says mom Janet, 46, a former model who now takes care of Greg full-time: “I just want him to enjoy himself.”

‘I saw she was special’

Virtually everyone who meets her notices Stephanie Jeong’s shyness. “I have a hard time drawing a yes or no out of her,” says violinist Aaron Rosand, her teacher for nearly five years. “She puts all her emotions into the music.”

Stephanie, 12, currently the youngest student at Philadelphia’s elite Curtis Institute of Music, performed as a soloist at the White House at age 7 and has appeared with several symphony orchestras. “It’s tough at her age,” says her father, Kwangrae, 43, who runs a Chicago shipping business, “but I think she enjoys her life.”

Before Stephanie was 3, her mother, Junghee, 42, a South Korean native with a master’s degree in music education, gave her a makeshift violin made from a Cracker Jack box and a chopstick for a bow. Soon after-ward, Stephanie started formal lessons with a 1/16-size violin. “It wasn’t until she was 6 or 7 that I saw she was special,” says Betty Haag-Kuhnke, who runs the Des Plaines, Ill., music school where Stephanie spent six years. In 1997, Haag-Kuhnke arranged a meeting with Rosand at the Curtis Institute, where Leonard Bernstein studied. At her audition, “she just astounded the panel,” says Rosand, 72, a former child prodigy who is now her primary teacher at Curtis. “There was no question she would be accepted.”

Enrolling meant relocating to Philadelphia with her mother and younger brother, while her father stayed at home in suburban Prospect Heights, Ill. In seventh grade at a public school for gifted children, she attends Curtis about seven hours a week and practices four to five hours daily. “Sometimes I feel like riding my bike with my friends, but that’s not often,” she says. “I know that if I do, I won’t make it to the top.”

Confounding the doctor

When Cassidy Kearney delivered her first child five weeks early, her doctor, concerned about complications from the difficult pregnancy, including toxins in her blood, tried to prepare her for the worst. “He told me not to expect anything,” recalls Kearney, 41, a homemaker. “The baby was going to be a slow learner.”

Michael Kearney, now 15, proved otherwise, graduating from a Novato, Calif., high school at age 6 and earning a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at 10. At 14, he completed one master’s degree in biochemistry and is now about a year away from another, in computer science, at Middle Tennessee State University. His sister Maeghan, 14, no slouch herself, is a college freshman, but their parents insist they are regular children in most ways. “The biggest compliment my husband and I can get is that our two kids are normal,” says Cassidy, whose husband, Kevin, 45 and a former Navy officer, works in production for a tire company.

“College is a weird experience for anybody,” Michael says of his years at California’s Santa Rosa Junior College and the University of South Alabama. “But being 15 years younger than all of your classmates and having your mom accompany you everywhere was really weird.” He hopes to earn a Rhodes scholarship and may pursue a doctorate in chemistry—or he might want to be a game show host. He’s taking his time to decide. “I’ve got all the time in the world,” he says, “and billions of paths in front of me.”

‘I felt like I had done okay’

Though most would-be college students who take the Scholastic Aptitude Test do so in high school, Vino Vasudevan, 13, of Lake Oswego, Ore., showed such promise that last January she participated in the annual Johns Hopkins University nationwide talent search for gifted children who take the SATs in seventh and eighth grades. “It wasn’t supereasy and it wasn’t superhard,” she says of the exam. “I felt like I had done okay.”

When the results arrived, her parents—who moved to the U.S. from India when Vino was an infant—had to ask friends to interpret the scores. Only then did they realize that the overall score of 1600 (800 on math, 800 on verbal) was a rare flawless performance. In fact, of the 600,000 seventh and eighth graders who have taken the test with Johns Hopkins in the past two decades, Vino is the first with a perfect score. Says her mother, Pushpa, 35: “We thought, ‘Okay, that’s something.’ ”

Not that they were completely surprised. Vino had early shown she was exceptional, reading 100 books the summer she was 5 and so excelling in math that by second grade, at age 7, she had mastered the seventh-grade course. At 8, she enrolled in a college algebra class, earning an 86 on the first test and a perfect score on the next.

Despite her academic prowess, her parents have let her skip only one grade. (She is taking a computer class at a community college.) “Once they lose their childhood,” says her father, Vasu, 40, an engineer at a high-tech medical firm, “they don’t know what they missed.” Excited about entering the local high school this fall, Vino hasn’t decided on a career path. “I have no clue,” she says. “I think I’ll grow up first.”

When a wunderkind grows up

What happens when a prodigy becomes an adult? Does the early promise and attention lead to great accomplishment later in life or just disappointment? The life of Boulder, Colo., Mayor William Toor, 37, offers an example. Growing up in Pittsburgh, Toor, the youngest of three children, showed such intelligence in math and biology that he left high school at 13 to enter Carnegie Mellon University, where his father, Herb, now 72, was dean of engineering. (Mother Beth, 72, was a research chemist.) “I never thought of him as a prodigy,” says Herb. “He was just precocious.”

So much so that at age 16, Toor was a graduate student in physics at Stanford, teaching freshmen older than he was. He also got involved in the environmental movement, a commitment he pursued later at the University of Chicago, where he earned his physics doctorate after marrying Mary Ella Colvin, 37, who studied philosophy there. They eventually settled in Boulder, where he directs the University of Colorado’s environmental-resource center. Toor ran for city council in 1997 and was selected mayor a year later.

Toor doesn’t flaunt his brain-power. “He doesn’t put himself apart from others,” says Boulder civic activist Françoise Poinsatte. Does he have any regrets? Not really. “As I get to know the types of traumas most of my friends lived through in high school,” says Toor, “I think I was pretty lucky to miss that.”

Written by Thomas Fields-Meyer

Reported by Macon Morehouse in Ashland, Grant Pick in Chicago, Beverly Keel in Murfreesboro, Tenn., Alexandra Hardy in Lake Oswego and Vickie Bane in Boulder

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