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?
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.”
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