Aptitude Adjustment

Rick Rivera was always smart, but he was easily distracted and undisciplined. Then he found his way to the Naval Academy, where tough academics turned around a former troublemaker.

May 26, 2001|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

At some point in Rick Rivera's life, after getting kicked out of two Mexican high schools and dropping out of an American college, he figured out what it takes to succeed.

But it was a long, long road for Rivera. His mother tried to guide him, pointing her finger at him after the late-night phone calls from the policia about the egg-throwing and the afternoon meetings with his teachers fed up with the spitballs. She would sit him down in the kitchen of their small Juarez, Mexico, home, shaking her hands in the air, saying, "Tienes mala actitud!" You have a bad attitude.

But during those years he wasn't ready to listen. Now, a decade later, he is graduating from the Naval Academy, one of the toughest colleges in the nation, at the top of his class, with a double major in systems engineering and economics.

Born in El Paso, Texas, he was taken back across the border to Juarez, where he was raised, the son of trophy makers. In the beginning, he excelled at school. He was too smart for his class, and as many would say later, perhaps too smart for his own good.

His teachers moved him past fifth grade into sixth. But he was still bored, and, suddenly the youngest in the class, without any friends. To cope, he adopted a bravado and an attitude developed with a little troublemaking- taping pornography to the classroom windows, teasing the girls in his class as they passed by in the hallways.

He stopped doing homework, passing classes with an impressive memory for numbers, fudging his way past essay requirements and grammar.

"I was always a smart kid," Rivera says now. "I was just a troublemaker. I realized everybody liked the cool kids, the ones who get in trouble all the time. I wanted to be like them."

He became riskier in his pranks, shouting out jokes and passing notes. He was usually the one who got caught. But despite the antics and a penchant for skipping class, he always made his way back to school in the afternoon for two classes: physics and advanced trigonometry. He's still not sure why.

"I think I liked physics because it challenged me," he said. "Our teacher wasn't afraid to give us the hardest problems. And it gave me a chance to show off."

In those two classes, he stood out immediately. The kid who never made it to school suddenly found himself at a national championship competition in mathematics and physics representing his high school, Colegio Bachilleres No. 5. He won.

But when he returned, he argued with his chemistry teacher over a failing test grade. He vandalized her car and was kicked out of school.

"We didn't know what to do with him," said Colegio Bachilleres Principal Gerardo Ortiz. "There were so many complaints from teachers. ... He was the typical prodigy where you could ask him math operations and he could do it right away. But all the teachers agreed there was no choice but to have him leave school."

Remembering that time recently at a table in an Annapolis restaurant, Rivera rubbed his temples and smiled, like someone remembering the pranks of a friend. "Between not showing up, the grades, vandalizing the car, I was very much a little delinquent," he said with a little laugh. "I had just lost all interest in school."

And so went Rick Rivera's life. Flashes of brilliance interrupted by long spells of boredom and defeat. His second high school was an even bigger disaster; he lasted only four months, expelled for not bothering to show up.

His parents were at the end of their rope. They enrolled him in a new self-paced school, one of the only places that would take him. And for almost nine months there was peace.

No diploma

The school taught in English, so they started him at a fifth-grade reading level. Nine months later, Rivera had mastered every lesson book it had through 12th grade.

Because more advanced books were not immediately available, he said goodbye to his new school, several months of coursework short of a high school diploma.

But no one since has asked Rivera for his diploma. Not the University of Texas, El Paso, not the Navy, not even the Naval Academy. Everyone just figured he had one.

Rivera next left for El Paso, where he enrolled in college and at first was energetic. But soon after, he started taking the "easy classes" like piano and physical education. A job he enjoyed, working for university scientists, ended after the group lost its grant money.

When a good friend decided to join the Navy, Rivera thought it sounded like a good idea.

In January 1996, he wandered into the Navy recruiting office. The officer handed him a test. Because it was in English, it did not go well. The officer almost dismissed him, but as he was about to leave, gave him another test to take. This one was a nuclear aptitude test that should have taken two hours to complete.

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