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Kid on campus

Gifted 13-year-old college freshman juggles calculus, 'N Sync and puberty

Wednesday, February 21, 2001

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Jessica Meeker lets out a whoop of delight from the back seat of the car.

Although a busy college freshman, Jessica Meeker, 13, still has time for friends her own age, such as her fellow youth group members at St. John's Episcopal Church in Bellefonte, Centre County. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Her excitement has nothing to do with the polynomials she just studied in calculus class or the Freud lecture in human development class.

It's about Pluto.

As in the Disney character.

Her mother has just picked up the Penn State University freshman after class and hands her the Pluto toy ornament that came in the mail.

Jessica is 13.

Clasping her gold dog, bouncing on the seat, she says: "Mom, guess what? Guess what? Guess what? I got a 100 on my calculus quiz!"

Jessica knows that as a reward, she can buy an 'N Sync concert video. But she is looking forward to a bigger prize at the end of the semester. "Daddy says if I get a B or higher in calculus, I get a scooter."

Any 13-year-old is a walking contradiction, a tug between adult and childlike urges. But when you start college at the newsmaking age of 12, the contradictions are even more startling.

Like going through puberty and freshman orientation at the same time.

Or reading the book "A Little Maid of Mohawk Valley" (recommended ages: 8 to 12) as she waits for the start of calculus class (recommended ages: 18 to 22).

Or giving a classroom speech on the venereal disease chlamydia even though she has never been to an R-rated movie.

Last semester, Jessica was a novelty, little girl on campus, "Today" show celebrity and home-schooled marvel.

This semester, she might be mistaken for just another short co-ed, hurrying to class on the overflowing sidewalks of a major research university. If there is a lot of pressure weighing down on her little shoulders, this commuter from nearby Bellefonte doesn't show it.

The university is more fun than elementary school, where she attended only first grade before her mother yanked her out.

"College is better because I don't have to go to gym class, and there's no mean art teacher."

Jessica Meeker, 13, right, walks to class at Penn State University. She entered college when she was 12. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Among the gifted

Jessica has flowing brown hair, pale skin and blue eyes that get a faraway look when she listens to 'N Sync.

Her musical taste is typical of her age.

Her intellectual taste is anything but.

There are so few college kids like her that there are no statistics.

Peter D. Rosenstein, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children, estimates the number of kids in college "is less than 1 percent of 1 percent kind of thing. The public view of Doogie Howser ... these are exceptionally gifted children. Some of these children are way off the charts. There is no way their parents can keep up with them.

"They are ready for college. Colleges don't accept them if they are not ready."

Jessica has been a B student at Penn State, but her mother, Leigh, doesn't like to give a class-by-class breakdown of grades except to say she excelled in math and science.

Jessica pipes in: "I had two A's last semester. I was so happy."

The one C came in religious studies, a class Jessica calls "annoying." Her father, Floyd, said she had never been asked to sit down and take notes from a lecture before but that she has adjusted well this semester.

"We don't like to dwell on grades," Leigh says. "People are waiting for her to screw up."

The snipes aren't coming from her Penn State classmates, who are supportive or don't give a second glance to the 5-foot-2-1/2 girl who could pass for 15 or 16.

It's the occasional kid her own age who tries to stump the little brainiac.

"So if you are so smart, then name all the presidents," one little boy dared her on her recent vacation in Texas.

"Get lost," she replied.

"Another kid asked me to spell 'encyclopedia.' I spelled it right," Jessica says, sitting at the kitchen table of their Bellefonte house, a 20-minute drive from campus.

To get to the Colonial-style modular house set on 26 acres with a sweeping view of the mountains, you have to climb up a long hilly driveway that was only recently paved and is still daunting in the snow.

But inside, the house is cozy and immaculately clean. Mounted on each kitchen cabinet is one of the Ten Commandments, and the walls are adorned with newspaper articles starring Jessica.

As Jessica sips carrot juice out of the tail of an orange plastic monkey cup and her 10-year-old brother, Carl, plays, Leigh talks about the articles. She winces as she reads quotes from psychiatrists and others saying that sending a kid to college robs her of her childhood.

"It is very upsetting that these so-called professionals say kids shouldn't be in college," Leigh says. "The definition of childhood is to explore your world. What better way to explore your world than at a level that challenges you?"

A study of the social and emotional impacts of being a gifted child is underway at The National Association for Gifted Children. "They don't seem to have dramatically different issues than other children," Rosenstein says. "Some of them may be more serious. They may grow up a little earlier. Some tend to gravitate to speaking and being with adults. Intellectually, that is where they are at."

Even so, for the rare gifted child who goes to college, Rosenstein says, "I imagine it's lonely." He says it is important for them to also hang out with students their own age. Jessica has young friends at activities such as musical theater group and the youth group at St. John's Episcopal Church. On a recent night, she was laughing and teasing with her church group friends as they decorated an altar cloth.

Still, she is grouped together with other precociously smart children in a Weekly Reader article titled "Kids on Campus." It has photos of Jessica, alongside other prodigies such as Sho Yano, a 10-year-old freshman at Loyola University in Chicago, and Greg Smith, an 11-year-old at Randolph Macon College in Ashland, Va.

The caption under Jessica's photo says: "Some psychologists say that whiz kids such as Jessica miss out on childhood activities while attending college. What do you think?"

Jessica rolls her eyes at the caption. Too young for college?

"I am the oldest one in the article. It's so stupid."

Jessica does algebra homework in a hallway between classes. She enrolled in Penn State at the age of 12, after being home- schooled. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Home schooling

Her first word wasn't "ma-ma" or "dah-dah." It was "pocketbook."

Her parents just looked at their infant daughter in disbelief.

She was bored silly once she started attending elementary school in the Harrisburg area. Her father, an analyst for UPS, had been transferred there.

"I would ask her, 'What did you learn today?' and she would say, 'Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.' It was terrible," Leigh says. "I talked to the teacher and principal. They said, 'She's average. Don't worry about it. Sooner or later, she will find something she doesn't know.' "

That frustration isn't uncommon. Often, "we don't focus on gifted children in public schools," Rosenstein says. "When you find a child in college, it is often a parent who has worked very hard to find an appropriate placement for a child."

Leigh wasn't going to sit around and wait for the school to challenge her first-grade daughter. After Jessica was deemed gifted from a 99.7 percentile score on a child intelligence test, Leigh pulled her out of school and bought a home schooling curriculum from a Christian-based home schooling academy in Texas. (Jessica has never taken an adult IQ test.)

Jessica skipped second grade and whipped through third grade in about 12 weeks. She did about two grades a year. "She didn't get stuck until 10th grade. That was the first time she asked me a question," Leigh says. At the time, Leigh, a former mail carrier with an associate degree in liberal arts from Penn State, thought, "It's about time you need me."

As she advanced to high school and took pre-calculus and physics, it became harder and harder for her mother to answer her questions.

They did the home-schooling not at home, but at McDonald's so there would be no distractions.

"It was a joke for a while, 'where is she going to go to college?' " Leigh says laughing. " 'Burger King?' "

Instead, the parents set their sights on Penn State, their alma mater. They had read about some colleges shooing kids away.

"But Penn State offered nothing but help and assistance," Leigh says. "Their attitude was, we have qualifications. If she can pass them, she is in."

A class act

Jessica walks down the long steep stairs of the big lecture hall for psych class until she is sitting in her usual seat -- front and center. She sits quietly, scribbling down notes during the lecture. Once class is over, she rushes out so she can make it to English class across campus.

"The worst thing about college is that you have to go outside and walk in the cold," she says, her Tweety Bird backpack bobbing on her back.

As classmates chatter about the weekend, she quietly reads "A Little Maid of Mohawk Valley" until this English composition class begins.

She shyly raises her hand to answer a question -- but puts it down after another student answers. After class, she chats with a female student about how she might write her composition about Bill Clinton's impeachment and Monica Lewinsky, a topic that came up in class.

"I don't really have many friends yet" this semester, she says. But it's more of a function of her schedule -- back-to-back classes from 10:10 a.m. to 2:15 p.m., with no lunch break. A 13-year-old taking 14 college credits doesn't leave much time to dally.

Last semester, it was easy for her to make friends because she had a lunch break between classes.

Rebekah Smith, 18, would eat lunch with her then. The two students, six years apart, would help each other with trigonometry problems.

"She has a really good grasp for scientific things," Rebekah says. "We would sit there and doing trig together, and she would just know it. Sometimes it would take me a while."

Sometimes Rebekah would be embarrassed that a 12-year-old was explaining math to her. "But then I would figure, she is a genius."

The friendship wasn't all about studying. Rebekah said they would laugh together a lot and occasionally talk about boys.

Jessica was well-liked because "she didn't set herself up with an attitude like, 'I am 12 and I am here and I am better than you.' People would ask her about her age and she would just laugh," Rebekah says.

Jo Battaglia, her algebra II professor, says Jessica did "wonderfully" in her class and blended right in. "She was very serious. She always had her homework in. It was as though she had done this all her life."

It is only rarely that her age comes up. When her mother was helping her buy her books on the campus store because she didn't have a credit card, a student in line asked her how old she was. "I knew you were young -- but not that young," he said.

Her age is also a factor in scholarship applications -- but not a helpful one. Her mother says Jessica hasn't been able to get a scholarship because most are for students 16 and older. "Or you need community service, and she can't get community service because of her age."

But in many ways, adjusting to college might be easier than adjusting to the cliques and tyranny of middle school. "She would be labeled a nerd there," her mother says.

Leigh, who doesn't like her daughter to watch the TV show "The Simpsons" because the family members treat each other with disrespect, doesn't worry about sheltering her daughter from profanity or sexual references or alcohol on campus.

She talks about possibly letting her daughter live in the dorm at age 16 so she can get a master's degree. "Penn State is a big party school. I am not crazy about the thought of her partying. But there is a lot of bonding that goes on in dorms."

Sometimes drinking comes up in class. She told her mother how a girl in one of her classes bragged to her about partying all the time. But she said the girl got bad grades. Jessica told her mother, "I saw firsthand how it destroys brain cells."

Jessica is studying a pre-med curriculum, even though she no longer wants to become a neonatal pediatrician. But until she declares a new major, her parents want her to stick with her pre-med goal.

"It is not like we are forcing her to be a doctor," her mother says. "She is welcome to change her goal. But we are making her keep her pre-med goal until she comes up with a new goal."

Jessica isn't sure what she will be when she grows up. Nutrition class was fun. But maybe she will do something with computers and be like Bill Gates.

But she really isn't sure what to do.

For a fleeting moment, Jessica Meeker mentions just one disadvantage of being the youngest student on campus. "Everyone else has had six more years to decide what to do."

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