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Michael Rodeman's future depended on winning the Math Bowl, but could he?
By THOMAS LAKE, Times Staff Writer
Published November 29, 2007
[Kathleen Flynn | Times]
TAMPA -- The arena was cold and quiet and full of children. Nearly 400 of them, heads down, pencils in hand, deep in thought. It was nothing less than a thinking contest.
These were the Hillsborough County's brightest students, or at least a good fraction of its future engineers and rocket scientists, and they came to the USF Sun Dome on Wednesday morning for something called the Winter Math Bowl. Each one had a story. Especially the boy with the sleepy eyes and the mountainous Afro.
This boy smiled regularly, but he was not here to play games. He came because he needed to win.
This boy had a plastic bag of change in his pocket. It was his lunch money, courtesy of his father, who had gathered it from around the house because he had no other money to give.
This boy loved math, because it was a hard thing that came easily to him, but that was only part of the equation.
"That's another reason I do math," he said. "So I won't be poor anymore."
The boy's name is Michael Rodeman. He is 17 years old, and he can recite Pi, on command, to a depth of 46 decimal places. He lives in a borrowed house that smells like cigarettes.
Michael carries a thick burgundy binder wherever he goes. It is full of questions and answers about matrices and determinants. He was supposed to have finished 15 practice tests this year. So far he has done 58. He pledged to spend the weekend of his 17th birthday completing 17 practice tests. He nearly succeeded.
Michael is a junior in the magnet math program at Middleton High School. He is known by classmates as The Smart Guy. They crowd around him, asking for help, and he usually obliges. He makes almost every class into math class.
"Chemistry, I do math," he said. "English, I do math. Even in drafting I do math."
Michael's love of math grew to an obsession when he joined the math team on the advice of Kim Woolfenden, also known as Miss Wolf, the head of Middleton's math department. Miss Wolf sees her students as her children, partly because she has no children of her own, and Michael may be her neediest son.
Nearly every day, he stays hours past the final bell to practice his equations. Nearly every day, she drives him home, to Seffner, which is not on her way home.
Michael's father is Thomas Rodeman. Thomas enjoys motorcycles and has spent time in prison. He has an eight-ball tattooed on the back of his left hand. He is very proud of his son, but he rarely takes him anywhere. Thomas has no working vehicle and his driver's license is suspended on account of unpaid tickets. He stays at home with Michael and two other children. They get by on government checks.
"We have a lot of love," Thomas said. "We just don't have a lot of money."
Michael wants to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and become a theoretical physicist. He will need something like a full scholarship. Hence the urgency.
Michael went to the Math Bowl on Wednesday to compete in the pre-calculus division. All around him were T-shirts featuring puns about Pi: Mmm ... Pi, and Forget Math Let's Eat Pi, and Pi: Irrational But Well Rounded.
Michael had never finished first before. This time he did.
Michael high-fived his teammates and collected his trophy. Miss Wolf bought him lunch, so he didn't have to spend his change. They all went bowling and then back to school, where Michael stayed for several hours, solving problems on the whiteboard, and then Miss Wolf drove him home.
She drove him home because his mother could not. His mother, a Sunday school teacher named Susan Rodeman, got him into the magnet program. She wanted her boy to succeed. They used to stay up late together, talking about physics and math.
She was on her way to pick him up from math practice in January when her heart failed. She was 37.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Thomas Lake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245.
[Last modified November 28, 2007, 23:57:46]