Santiago’s Brain

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He knew the alphabet by two, fractions by four, and entered college at eleven. What happens to a kid who’s too smart for school?

By Jeff Tietz
Dec 07, 2011

Santiago Gonzalez, 13 years old and a full-time stu­dent at one of the nation’s top engineer­ing colleges, wakes up at 5:30 every morn­ing during the school year so that he can spend an hour and 20 minutes develop­ing iPad and iPhone applications in a pro­gramming language called Objective-C, which he learned from a textbook when he was nine. That textbook and 86 simi­lar volumes – Applied Finite Mathematics, Infinity in Your Pocket, Programming in C++, Dictionary of Physics – sit in a book­case opposite his bed. A dozen stuffed an­imals – purple dragons, Donald Duck, Shamu, a hound named Patrick – reside permanently at the foot of the bed.

Sometimes after Santiago gets up, he consults a notepad on his bedside cabi­net. “It might sound a little bit strange,” he says, “but I program in my dreams. I have a bug and the solution occurs to me and I jot it down.” The notepad is gener­ally covered in lines of notional code (“M inherits from physics body with gravity, etc.”) and schematics of computer hard­ware: Santiago can visualize the activi­ty his code kindles inside a machine.

But sometimes a whimsical invention shows up – an electronic knitting device called the “Knitingator,” for example. Santia­go sketched the complete unit, its sub­units and its component parts (“guid­er,” “spooler,” “controller,” “feed boom,” “knitboard,” “rail”), with both side and overhead views. The diagrams are in three dimensions – Santiago can’t re­member ever drawing a solid object two-dimensionally.

Having considered any relevant ideas on his notepad, Santiago walks over to his desk and picks up either his MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, depending on the morning’s programming task. The house at that hour is dark and silent. Santiago’s parents, Yago and Vanessa, his little sis­ter, Andrea, and the family’s Boston terri­er, Leo, are still asleep. Santiago likes the quiet – it helps him concentrate. A framed periodic table hangs above his desk; he likes to contemplate how physicists cre­ate new elements with “double magic” nuclei.

In flannel pajamas – one of the tops in his rotation has a big black-and-gray snowplow on it – Santiago walks in a shortest-line path from his bedroom to the living room, where he sits cross-legged (“crisscross applesauce,” in his words) on the couch. Motionless except for his fin­gers, lit primarily by his MacBook, San­tiago sits and programs. He is a slim kid with a long, oval face and luxuriant eye­lashes and big, dark, helplessly earnest eyes. He wears his short, soft brown hair combed neatly forward, unparted; wispy, incidental bangs curl at the edges of his forehead.

He works on a digital-metro­nome app, or a multiplayer slide-puzzle app, or an app for viewing the Mandelbrot Set fractal. He recently stopped working on an app that would create multiple co­existing desktops (for clutter avoidance) when he learned that software develop­ers at Apple had independently come up with the same idea.

Before his parents’ alarm goes off, San­tiago walks upstairs and snuggles with them for 15 minutes. Then everyone gets up, and Santiago brushes his teeth and gets dressed and eats breakfast, and Van­essa drops him off at the Colorado School of Mines, about 30 minutes from their home in the Denver suburb of Little­ton, where he is enrolled as a freshman. Santiago’s classmates treat him kindly, or protectively, or neutrally. His profes­sors value his rapt, inquisitive presence. “Honestly,” one of them told me, “Santia­go has sort of cramped my style. I like to swear and do crazy stuff, but I’ve adjust­ed – which is well worth it to have Santi­ago in my class.”

Before Santiago became a full-time col­lege student, when he was still 11, no ac­ademic environment had ever fully chal­lenged him, and he has craved intellectual stimulation like a narcotic since infancy. It is hard for him to talk about the pre­vious two years, when a feeble curricu­lum and doctrinaire teaching at a gifted school so stultified him that he spent most of his time, as he later wrote in a journal he had been assigned to keep, “just hang­ing on, trying not to go crazy like some­one with hysteria or schizophrenia.” A few times a month, memories of fifth and sixth grade turn into nightmares from which he wakes screaming.

I once asked Santiago to compare the happiness he feels now with the happi­ness he felt then, on a scale of one to 10. “Now would be a 1 million,” he said, “and then would be a zero. Or I guess it would be a negative number, because there was no happiness.”

To read the full story, pick up a copy of Rolling Stone Middle East, available at over 200 outlets in the UAE and GCC.


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