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Wonder What Becomes of Child Prodigies?


Fourteen years ago, VOA and several other news organizations profiled an amazing ten-year-old. Michael Kearney had just become the youngest person ever to graduate from an American college. The degree was in anthropology from South Alabama University.

When his mom had been pregnant with Michael, she was suffering from toxemia and anorexia. Doctors told her that her child would likely be developmentally slow. In other words, retarded.

It didn't quite work out that way. Michael began talking when he was ten months old, started reading a month later, mastered algebra at age three. Frenzied to learn, he drove his parents nuts asking questions about anything and everything. They gave him one rule for schooltime. When the teacher asked a question, he had to wait a couple of seconds before raising his hand, so other kids could have a chance to answer.

Michael was a prodigy, one of the rare child geniuses who typically excel in fields like music, chess or mathematics that are based on lots of facts or rules. Prodigies stand out, obviously. They're curiosities, and because they soon shoot past their age level in school, they often have trouble making friends.

But when we talked with Michael Kearney those 14 years ago as he prepared to graduate from college, he was a delight. Like any ten-year-old, Michael played video games, watched cartoons on TV, knocked a soccer ball around with other kids. "I'm not that special," he told us. "I'm not very good at a lot of things, like football. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses."

At age 14, Michael Kearney got a master's degree in biochemistry, producing a thesis on the growth of cancer cells. Now, at 23, he's studying for a doctorate and teaching college chemistry. But he's hardly what detractors call a geek, someone who's obsessed with schoolwork or computers. He's a big poker fan, has a steady girlfriend, and follows every detail of popular culture. So much so that in 2006 he was the first winner of an online reality game called Gold Rush, which involved answering rapid-fire questions about American celebrities.

His prize? One million dollars. So although Michael Kearney is no longer a child, he is still a prodigy. And a very rich one.

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