Atlanta Child Prodigy Enjoying College Life At Age 13

Stephen Stafford takes out the trash, and likes to play Wii games like any other 13-year-old. But his stellar academic achievement distinguishes him from his peers. Stafford is a triple pre-med major at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Guest host Lynn Neary speaks with Stephen Stafford, and his mom, Michelle Brown-Stafford about his adjustment to college life and how he manages to still enjoy his childhood.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Today, we want to talk about making academic leaps, not just getting skipped a grade or two, but even entering college at a very young age.

While other boys are navigating the world of middle school and lunchroom high jinx, 13 year old Stephen Stafford is charting his own course as a sophomore at Morehouse College. He is no oddity to the school. In fact, he falls into esteemed company. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. entered Morehouse at the age of 15.

Here to tell us what life is like for a teenage academic whiz are Stephen Stafford and his mom, Michelle Brown-Stafford. They joined us from Atlanta. Thanks to both of you for joining us today.

Ms. MICHELLE BROWN-STAFFORD: Thank you.

Mr. STEPHEN STAFFORD (Sophomore, Morehouse College): Thank you.

NEARY: Let's start with you, Stephen. What are you studying?

Mr. STAFFORD: Well, I currently have a dual major in biology, mathematics and computer science.

NEARY: Okay. So, you decided to take a light load.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Do you have time to do anything else? What do you do in your spare time?

Mr. STAFFORD: I play a lot of video games, play the piano, the drums, watch TV. I'm on my laptop pretty much. Anything else another 13-year-old kid would do.

NEARY: Okay. Do you live on campus or do you go home everyday or...

Mr. STAFFORD: No, I live with my parents.

NEARY: Mrs. Stafford, I want to ask how this sort of came about, because I know you home-schooled Stephen. Why did you do that in the first place?

Ms. BROWN-STAFFORD: Well, initially, I've always worked with my kids when they were very young, when they were toddlers, somewhere between two-and-a-half and three. And so when Stephen turned four, we were working out of workbooks. But I noticed that Stephen was finishing out workbooks a lot faster than expected. And so, when I talked to my husband about it, he advised, he said, well, just go ahead and advance him.

One thing led to another and, believe me, we did not intend to home-school as long as we did. But when we tried to put Stephen in both the private school and a public school, it just, it didn't go well. We knew that he wasn't getting much out of the experience. So, I continued to home school for as long as I could until I couldn't anymore, particularly in the subject of mathematics, I needed help.

NEARY: How old was he when you first realized that he was really moving along at an accelerated rate?

Ms. BROWN-STAFFORD: Probably when he was six. And we learned that Stephen had master - or he had mastered algebraic concepts that early.

NEARY: I still haven't mastered algebraic concepts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: And is that the point at which you saw, well, I need some help at that point or...

Ms. BROWN-STAFFORD: No. It was actually when Stephen turned 11 and my brick wall was algebra, too. When it got to the point where he started teaching me some of the things, then I knew I was in trouble. And I sought the assistance of Morehouse College.

NEARY: So, you went immediately to the college. You didn't go to a high school...

Ms. BROWN-STAFFORD: Well...

NEARY: ...at that point or...

Ms. BROWN-STAFFORD: Well, actually I tried the neighborhood high school and I was advised that, you know, maybe we should try some other things, just to keep them pre-occupied. I also tried other colleges. But the one that was more receptive to our situation was Morehouse.

NEARY: Now, Stephen, when you're being home-schooled, obviously you were a whiz in mathematics, as your mom said, I guess other subjects as well. Did you, at any time, feel that you're missing out on something by not being in a regular school?

Mr. STAFFORD: I really did not. I was actually happy that I wasn't in school.

NEARY: Why?

Mr. STAFFORD: I don't like a lot of people in one spot. Crowded areas and loud kids - it's overloading for me. And home-schooling, where it was just my sister and me, it was just better for me.

NEARY: Do you have any friends with kids your own age, or are your friends mostly older, or...?

Mr. STAFFORD: Mostly older, but when I go to my cousin's house, I'll hang out with him and his friends. They're around my age, but mostly they're older than I am.

NEARY: And Ms. Stafford, what have you done to help him maintain a normal life?

Ms. BROWN-STAFFORD: Well, you know, Lynn, when we started down this journey, I was very unsure about a lot of things. And I remember researching, as much as I could, about gifted children. And I followed, to the tee, a lot of the suggestions that were made by the experts. One suggestion at the time, was that they should be around kids their own age, you know. And so we tried that. And Stephen was not happy in that situation. I mean, I remember we had knockout, drag outs about it, and he was adamant about being with kids that were either older or - the compromise eventually became kids who shared his interest. Believe me, I mean, most of the decisions that my husband and I made, they were weighed cautiously...

NEARY: Yeah.

Ms. BROWN-STAFFORD: ...because we knew we were dealing in uncharted territory here. So, what I used to do is try to have him involve in community projects or service programs. And I think it was okay. Was it not, Stephen? Was that okay for you?

Mr. STAFFORD: No, it wasn't.

Ms. BROWN-STAFFORD: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BROWN-STAFFORD: He was - he's just a different kid. So...

NEARY: Before I follow up with you on that, Stephen...

Mr. STAFFORD: Sure.

NEARY: ...I just want to remind our listeners that if you're just joining us, you are listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And I'm speaking with Stephen Stafford. He is a 13-year-old student at Morehouse College and his mom, Michelle Brown-Stafford, is with us, also. We're talking about his experience at college and his educational achievements. I'm curious to just follow this up a little bit more, Stephen, did kids your age sometimes tease you or was it a question of other kids teasing you, or just that you just felt that you're really different from those other kids?

Mr. STAFFORD: I have never really heard it, but - if they do or not, but really they have no effect on me. I really don't care what they think.

NEARY: And how are you getting along now with the students at Morehouse College who are obviously quite a bit older than you, some of them?

Mr. STAFFORD: I guess, it's fine - I'm getting along fine with them.

NEARY: So, it's easier for you to get along with those kids?

Mr. STAFFORD: Yes.

NEARY: When you first went to Morehouse, though, were they surprised to see you when you first entered the classroom?

Mr. STAFFORD: Yeah - well, yes, at first. And then when I started getting higher grades than they were on the test, answering questions, helping them on the study group, they got used to it.

NEARY: Yeah. I read that you actually tutor one of your fellow students. Is that right?

Mr. STAFFORD: Well, now currently, (unintelligible) he was making about a C when we started, and afterwards, I brought him up to about B plus, somewhere around there.

NEARY: Did you ever - you're saying that all along the way, Ms. Stafford, you -you know, you had concerns about this. What were your reservations about letting Stephen go to college at such a young age? What were your main concerns?

Ms. BROWN-STAFFORD: Initially, Stephen was invited to audit a class as early as nine. Now, I had known that there were other kids across the country, who had started college that early, but for me, I'll tell you, I had serious reservations about it. In fact, I kind of delayed taking Stephen on campus for about two years until it was just plain - it was obvious that he needed to be in the hands of people with Ph.D.s. And so, even when we approached Morehouse and Stephen audited the first class and he did extremely well in college honors algebra - the second time he took the honors pre-calculus, I believe it was, and scored the highest in that class.

And so, when we met with the dean of admissions, initially they wanted Stephen to just start full time and for me to drop him off. And I just couldn't do it. I mean, I'm a mom. And so I heard that there was another - a 10-year-old who had attended Morehouse in the '80s, and unfortunately, he didn't do as well.

And so, I was very concerned about Stephen just being thrown on campus. So, my approach to it was a gradual thing. It's like I will walk him to his class myself, pick him up afterwards, and we would go home. And we did that for about the first two years. Now, once he's turned 13, obviously he has gotten more comfortable on campus. And we talked about it and he was ready for me to just drop him off. As a result of that approach, Stephen is doing remarkably well.

NEARY: I think, Stephen, you said that you're taking pre-med courses. Is that right?

Mr. STAFFORD: Well, yeah, just put on my major.

NEARY: I can't help but, you know, think how old you're going to be when you're applying to medical school. And how old you're going to be when you're actually a practicing physician. Have you thought about that?

Mr. STAFFORD: Well, I probably will be applying to medical school at 16 or 17.

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STAFFORD: And I will probably finish medical school when I am 22, 23, probably around there.

NEARY: Do you know what kind of doctor you want to be?

Mr. STAFFORD: An OB/GYN with a specialty in infertility.

NEARY: Now, how did you come to that decision?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STAFFORD: Well, I've always loved babies and to help them come into this world and make sure they come in safely would be a good experience for me.

NEARY: That's great. You're going to be dealing with people as a physician, I would gather, who are much older than you. Is that going to be hard, do you think?

Mr. STAFFORD: Well, I've been doing it all my life. So, a few more years of that won't hurt.

NEARY: You are unflappable. Aren't you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Nothing is going to make him nervous, it sounds like, Ms. Stafford.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BROWN-STAFFORD: That is who Stephen is, I tell you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Well, that's great. Stephen Stafford is a sophomore right now, at Morehouse, and he's 13 years old. Michelle Brown-Stafford is his proud mom. And they were both kind enough to join us from Atlanta. Thanks to both of you. And good luck to you, Stephen.

Ms. BROWN-STAFFORD: Thank you.

Mr. STAFFORD: Oh, thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: Just ahead, we hear from the writer and director of an Oscar-nominated documentary, "China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province."

Mr. JON ALPERT (Writer, Director, "China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province"): It was on our second day there that we saw something absolutely extraordinary. And this was a long line of men and women, walking slowly down the road, and each person was carrying an 8x10 photograph of their dead child.

NEARY: We'll hear how the film was made and how China hopes it doesn't get an Oscar. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I'm Lynn Neary.

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