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IQ like Einstein

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By Susan Freinkel

April felt he needed live humans to bounce ideas off of. He needed knowledge filtered through more perspectives that hers alone. “I was the worldview, and I’m just not big enough,” she says. “He needs a big crowd to talk to — not just me.”

By then the two had moved to her hometown of Trenton, New Jersey. April contacted the local community college, hoping he could take some chemistry courses there and have a chance to do the kind of lab work that was impossible to rig together at home. “They put up roadblock after roadblock,” she says. Even though testing showed he could handle college level chemistry, the administration resisted. “They didn’t want a 9-year-old in their lab.”

Still, at the rate he was zipping through his high school work, April worried that he’d be ready for college by the time he was 12. She didn’t want that: “He has his whole life to be a grown-up. I want to preserve his childhood.” She recognized that college is about more than academics and wanted to save the cultural experience for when he would be old enough to enjoy it. “I didn’t want him to be the cute little smart pet.”

Opting out of the prodigy track

There were fewer barriers when it came to nurturing Nathan’s other great passion – music. Unlike academics, the arts are indulgent toward child prodigies. Nathan was born with perfect pitch and taught himself to play the drums and recorder. When he was 7 years old, April introduced him to the piano, arranging for lessons with a local teacher. By the time they moved to New Jersey, he’d become accomplished enough to be accepted into a special program for young artists at the Westminster Conservatory in Princeton. Nathan loved performing; “I’m a stageaphile,” he says. While developing a classical recital repertoire, he also began composing works of his own. One four-movement piece of piano, “Animalscapes” took first place in a national competition.

Equally valuable, at Westminster, he made friends for the first time, having found other boys who shared his love of music and were somewhat gifted. “It was easier to get closer [with them] than with those who aren’t anywhere on the gifted spectrum,” Nathan recalls. “In that case, I feel like I can’t relate at all.”

When he was 9, Nathan announced he wanted to apply to Julliard in composition. It would be a struggle to pay the tuition, much less negotiate the logistics of getting him into New York City every day, but April was thrilled to think of her son at such a prestigious institution. But by the time the acceptance letter arrived a few months later, her quicksilver boy had moved on. He’d become bored with the classical tradition that was the backbone of Julliard’s curriculum. Now he was drawn to abstract, avant-garde music of composers like John Cage, an exploration that would eventually take him toward the scientifically and mathematically inspired music he focuses on today. To April’s disappointment, he turned Julliard down.

It was a hard decision to accept, she says. “I grieved.” She’d lost bragging rights and more importantly, a clear next step for her son. “He’s an out-of-the-box kid and I was trying to stuff him back into a box again. And he’s kicking the box to the curb.” She didn’t want to limit him, but still she wondered, “Oh my God, now what do we do?”

Next page: Moving 3,000 miles away for educational gold?

Susan Freinkel is the author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story and has written for the New York Times, Discover, Smithsonian, Real Simple, and other national publications.