'Smart Alex', 14, is junior at Hopkins IN A CLASS BY HIMSELF

April 14, 1994|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Sun Staff Writer

On Alex Saeed's desk in his dormitory room at the Johns Hopkins University rests a 4-inch-thick "Textbook of Surgery." Some Lego blocks are on a nearby shelf.

Alex wants to be a doctor, and he's taking a five-course load heavy on science, including one course called "Human Brain." But every afternoon he finds time to watch "Animaniacs," a TV cartoon show. At home on the weekends, he knocks around his Gaithersburg neighborhood with 12- and 13-year-olds.

His nickname is Smart Alex, and he is 14. He entered Hopkins in January as a junior, becoming the university's youngest student.

Alex shrugs off the incongruities that are his life.

"A lot of people say, 'You've given up your childhood,' " Alex says. "But I like to ask, what do other kids my age do that I'm missing? I play tennis. I swim. I'm taking tae kwon do."

Alex, who graduated from a community college in December, falls into a long line of high-achieving youths who have entered Hopkins at an early age. Since 1953, 41 students have graduated at 18 or younger, says Julian C. Stanley, founder of the university's programs for the precocious.

But Alex, who will be 16 when he graduates in two years if he stays on schedule, would be one of the youngest.

"Hopkins has been a place that has traditionally been sympathetic to young people coming to college when they're ready," says William G. Durden, director of the Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. "I think Alex is ready,"

His father, Alex Saeed Sr., is a Pakistani-born consultant and a tireless promoter of his two bright children. Alex's mother, Joo-Ok, is a Korean-born nurse who holds two jobs. His sister, Sophia, 10, is capable of going to college now, Mr. Saeed says.

Alex's father said his son started reading at 2. At 4, he mastered long division and sums involving dozens of multidigit numbers.

Mr. Saeed wrote out the math problems on white paper and dangled cash in a paper clip from the ceiling as an incentive.

"The best thing was money. As soon as I was done I could reach up and just grab the money," Alex recalls, smiling. "A dollar a day, every day." Much of the money is still in a bank account, he says.

After Alex completed kindergarten and first grade in a Montgomery County public school, his parents considered eight private schools. They did not find the right match, and Alex returned to public school.

"In terms of content, it was extremely boring. No, boring's not the right word. Easy. No-brainer," he says, pointing to his head.

After the fifth grade, he took the Scholastic Aptitude Test, scoring a combined 970 out of a possible 1,600 on the math and verbal tests, 70 points higher than the U.S. average for high school seniors.

At age 11, Alex began taking night courses at Hopkins. But the family tired of the 110-mile round trip, and he enrolled at Montgomery County Community College.

There Alex was well known, getting elected treasurer of the student government at age 13. He earned his associate's degree in December.

Dr. Stanley, who has been studying precocious students for 25 years, says someone Alex's age is typically better off going to high school and attending college part-time.

"I think the possibility of social development is better," Dr. Stanley says. "It's hard for students that age to have the experience -- for dating girls, for example."

Dr. Durden, though, says there is no one right way to educate an especially talented child.

"There is the provincial approach where people say, 'Well, you missed the prom,' " Dr. Durden says. "My response to that is that the majority of the world grows up mature and doesn't have the prom . . . or go out repeatedly to the mall.

"I hear too many times where people will take cultural superficialities and use that against a developing child, instead of saying . . . 'Who is the child and what does this child need for him or her to develop?' "

One Hopkins student, who graduated at 17 with a bachelor's and a master's degree, has become a leader in virtual reality. Another, who graduated at 18, went on to law school, a Fulbright scholarship, a clerkship with a federal judge and a Marshall scholarship at Oxford University.

Alex wants to be a doctor, perhaps a heart surgeon or a geneticist.

Poopak Ta'ati, a Montgomery Community College associate professor who taught Alex sociology, calls him one of her brightest students, including those she taught at the University of Texas and the University of Minnesota. She praised "his ability to understand the concepts and immediately work with them and take them even further."

Overall, Alex's academic record is by no means stellar, except that it was accomplished about six years ahead of schedule.

An 18-year-old high school student with the same credentials would be a "marginal" candidate for admission, says Richard M. Fuller, Hopkins' director of admissions.

Crucial to the decision were Alex's age and composure. Mr. Fuller said Hopkins officials didn't even look at his IQ, which Mr. Saeed says is off the charts.

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