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Boy wonder

Gregory Smith started speaking at 2 1/2 months old. He was adding numbers and correcting grammar at 18 months. He went from second-grader to high school senior within three years. Soon he will start college - at age 10.

"I think he is the way he is because of God and God gave us the special talent it takes to help Gregory use what he has," says mom Janet Smith.

Story by TWILA DECKER

Photography by BILL SERNE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 9, 1999


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Greg prepares to dissect and examine worms in his honors biology class.
JACKSONVILLE -- The blond-haired, blue-eyed little boy peeks out from behind the rim of a big glass of chocolate milk, his feet dangling well above the floor.

For a few minutes, as he fiddles with his straw, which he has to fold down to drink from, and munches on a big mess of fried angel-hair pasta, one of his favorite snacks, Greg Smith looks every bit like the 9-year-old that he is.

That is, until he speaks.

It is then that words so intensely intelligent, so reasoned, so concise, pour out from behind his dimpled cheeks, and it becomes overwhelmingly clear that this is no ordinary little boy. There's a giant mind inside his tiny body.

His favorite philosopher, he explains, is Plato and his favorite poet is William Wordsworth. He relaxes to Mozart and finds inspiration in the teachings of Ghandi, Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King Jr., men who all share his belief in non-violence.

He committed to becoming a vegetarian at 2, a decision he came to after realizing, while studying dinosaurs, that like herbivores, humans have flat teeth. He admits, however, that it took a while to wean himself off Chicken McNuggets.

"Well, I ate Chicken McNuggets until I was 4," he says, sounding like a little boy again. "Each time, those Chicken McNuggets did not taste as good."

At 5, he reasoned all by himself that there was no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny when he found that all the books on them were in the fiction section of the library.

He can talk authoritatively about religion, his political leanings and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

"I know there has to be a non-violent solution. By waging this campaign, we have just helped Milosevic get rid of the Albanians faster," he says.

He can tell you the complete history of planet Earth, from prehistoric days to 19th century Europe.

Yes, believe it or not, he's only 9 years old.

In June, two days after he turns 10, Greg, whose IQ is so high it can't be quantified, is graduating from Orange Park High School, near Jacksonville.

He and his parents will then head off to a yet-to-be-determined college. Greg is being wooed by schools around the country.

Margaret Chambliss teaches Greg two research method classes in one period. Because Greg learns so quickly, all but one of his classes this semester consist of just him and a teacher.

If Greg remains on track, he could have his bachelor's degree before his first date, and at least one master's degree before his driver's license.

His ultimate education goal, he says, is to have three Ph.D.s by the time he is 33, the age by which he calculates he could complete the work.

He wants to become an aerospace engineer so he can design space stations; a biomedical researcher so he can cure diseases; and, oh, yeah, president of the United States so he can bring peace to the world.

For Greg's parents, Bob and Janet Smith, watching their little boy's mind grow in disproportion to his body has not always been easy.

"It's a mix of feelings," his father says of his son, who is the age of a third grader. "No one wants their child to grow up so fast. I would have loved to watch him play high school sports. I'm not going to watch him go to his first dance or prom. On the other hand, we've gotten a lot more."

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Bob Smith likes to see his son let loose and enjoy being a boy. On the court, instead of horse, "we play G-R-E-G-A-R-I-O-U-S," Greg says.
Though Greg is believed to be the youngest student ever to graduate from high school in Florida, he will not be the youngest college freshman ever.

Michael Kearney, now 14, started college in California at 6, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of South Alabama, in Mobile, at 10, according to the Guinness Book of Records. In the fall, Michael, who was home-schooled until college, begins work on his second master's degree at Middle Tennessee State.

First signs

"I know everybody thinks their child is special, and they are in their own way, but Greg really was different," Janet Smith says

The couple, who lived in Pennsylvania at the time, say they began keeping a journal and videotaping Greg's progress so they could prove they weren't completely mad.

"We knew we had to document everything. No one would believe us," Janet Smith says.

He started speaking his first words at 21/2 months. Before he could walk, he could recite his ABCs. In one video, Greg, who is wearing a diaper and less than 1 year old, is answering his mother as she drills him on the alphabet.

"Greg, what comes after H?" his mom can be heard saying.

"I," Greg replies in a tiny voice.

"Greg, what comes after O?" she says, while Greg tries to pull himself up.

"P," he says.

By the time he turned 1, he was talking in complete sentences, telling his parents, "Read to me, please."

Greg Smith, who takes all but one class alone, listens to the Orange Park High School principal talk about the school shootings in Littleton, Colo., a day after they occurred. Greg is an advocate of non-violence, and is a vegetarian.

At 18 months, his mother, a retired model who owned a dance studio at the time, says he was adding numbers and correcting grammar.

"We were driving and my father said, "Look at all the goose out there,' " she says. "And Gregory said, "Granddad, it's one goose, many geese.' "

Six months later, he swore off meat (except for the McNuggets). At 5, while his father dashed into a fast-food restaurant to pick up lunch, Greg wrote his first poem, The Days of the Wild.

His mother says people still grill her, trying to discover the secret to Greg's phenomenal intellect, a gift that not even medical doctors can explain.

Did she and her husband, who has a master's degree in microbiology, tape flash cards to Greg's crib? Did they play dolphin sounds or classical music or read to Greg while he was still in the womb? Are there a lot of really smart people in their gene pool?

The answer to all of those questions, his parents say, is no.

They did encourage Greg to learn whenever he showed an interest, taking him everywhere from science museums to monuments in Washington, D.C.

Greg's father credits synergy -- that all the right elements came together at the right time, from genes to nurturing. His mother credits God.

"I think he is the way he is because of God and God gave us the special talent it takes to help Gregory use what he has," says Janet Smith, whose family attends a variety of Christian churches. "You can't make a person want to learn. All we did was, if he showed an interest, we helped him explore it."

School time

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Greg writes some thoughts in a notebook in a hallway of his high school. He was on his way home and remembered some things he wanted to jot down.
Within weeks, his parents discovered that watching their son's unbelieveable achievements from the living room couch was one thing. Sending him off to school, where he would have to fit into a grade level, was something else entirely

At school, Greg already knew everything the other kids in his class were just starting to learn. His teacher's goal was for the class to master the ABCs and count to 20 by year's end. Greg could already add numbers to the trillions and had read Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Last of the Mohicans.

By Christmas break, the school decided to put him in the first grade, where he stayed until the end of the year. The next year, he went into the second grade but was taking third-grade math and fourth-grade history and science.

But when the school district refused to advance him any further, his mother didn't feel he was being handled correctly.

"He didn't really have an advocate," Janet Smith says. "They kind of looked at Greg as a problem, rather than the treasure that he is."

She persuaded her husband, reluctant to quit his job, leave his friends and sell her dance studio, that they should move. Janet Smith says she also was recovering from breast cancer and longed for warm weather.

Florida-bound

Their search led them to Orange Park, a suburb south of Jacksonville and in the Clay County School District, which agreed to form a committee of educators to help ensure that Greg's educational needs were met

The family bought a house in August 1996 in Eagle Harbor, a planned community that looks like a movie set out of The Truman Show.

"You don't even have to leave to go to the grocery store," Greg explains during a recent drive through the neighborhood. "Everything is here."

Bob Smith found a job as general manager of Lithographic Services, which publishes brochures for the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce. He also teaches freshman biology at Florida Community College.

They enrolled Greg at Fleming Island Elementary, a brand-new school, thinking they could settle into the area for a while.

But Greg, who sped through grades faster than his legs grew, shortened their planned stay by nearly a decade.

"I guess it was (when we moved to Orange Park) that I really realized how exceptional he really is," says his father.

Doing the math

He started second grade at age 7 in August 1996. By October, he had moved to the fourth grade. By April, he was taking sixth-grade gifted classes at a second elementary school, Lakeside Elementary, and Algebra I at Orange Park High School

Sam Ward, the principal at Orange Park, says he remembers the day a school district official called and asked him if Greg could take math at his school.

"I said, "You've got to be kidding me,' " Ward says. " "There's no way an elementary school kid can do algebra.' "

But the district official convinced him to give the kid a chance.

Ward enlisted the help of two teachers, who volunteered to teach him although they had misgivings. A few days after working with Greg, the teachers came knocking on Ward's door.

"They said, "Sam, you gotta come see this. We give him all the tests and he gets all the answers right,' " Ward says.

After his success in algebra, the school district decided that Greg should skip middle school and enroll at Orange Park High full time.

High school was more equipped to teach at his level, and high school students would be kinder than middle schoolers, it was thought.

"Junior high school students are still maturing. They can have a tendency to pick on students who are different," says Jud Wilhelm, Clay County's director of secondary education. "In a very positive way, Greg is very different. We thought high school students would be more accepting."

Rumors quickly spread through the school that an 8-year-old was in their midst.

"Everyone was talking about it," says Eric Macam, a junior at the school. "I was pretty skeptical. I thought maybe he was just short. But once you see him, you can easily tell he's really just a little kid."

The students nicknamed him Albert Gregstein and Doogie Howser, after the television program in which a child prodigy becomes a doctor.

"I had to explain who Doogie Howser was because he wasn't old enough to watch that show," his mother says.

Welcome to high school

Because Greg learns so quickly, all but one of his classes this semester, political science, consist of just him and the teacher.

His mother picks him up every day for lunch and takes him home to eat. The most time he spends with the other students is a morning break, when he get a carton of chocolate milk from the cafeteria.

On one recent afternoon, while a St. Petersburg Times photographer was taking his photograph for this story, one high school girl could be heard teasing him.

"There's the little smart kid getting his picture taken again," she said.

But Greg, who also was approached by a student who asked how he was doing, insists that he has friends and that "99.999 percent of the students are very kind to me. They try to help me and protect me."

The other day, Greg says, when he gave a speech in political science class about how "age affects a person's political ideology," he was the only speaker who got applause.

He says being small also has its advantages. The school gave him two sets of textbooks so he doesn't have to lug them back and forth from home. He also had free rein on the kid rides when he attended Grad Nite at Walt Disney World last month.

Eric Macam, incoming president of the school's National Honor Society, counts himself as one of Greg's friends, although it is not the close bond that most high school students forge.

"I don't call him on the phone or anything, but we e-mail each other," says Eric, who was on the math team with Greg.

Eric and another student, Erich Spivey, say most of their classmates have become used to seeing Greg in the halls. This year, they elected him class historian, which means he goes to all the major events, taking photographs for a memory book.

Several of his classmates also watched him recently when he appeared on 60 Minutes and on Late Show With David Letterman.

"He's great for Orange Park. Public schools don't usually get any attention unless it's bad," says Erich, junior class president.

In addition to being class historian, Greg is a member of the National Honor Society, the Math Honor Society and the Orange Park High School Academic Team. He also has played in community sport clubs, like soccer, so he could be around kids his own age.

Ward says he realizes that having a student like Greg is in a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and he's just glad Greg is well mannered and well rounded.

"Learning science and math is one thing, but I was concerned about his writing until I saw his work," Ward says. He says he also was concerned at first that his parents might be pushing him.

"I thought maybe it was the parents (pushing him), but it's the kid," he said.

Margaret Chambliss, who currently teaches Greg research methods, says she believes the reason Greg has done so well is that he's passionate about learning. For one assignment, she says, she asked Greg to pick 25 architectural terms and photograph examples of them. He turned in 103.

"Other students want to know what they need to do to get an A and that's what they do," she says of Greg, who spends about four hours each night studying. "He does more than you would ever ask. He can't stop himself."

To ensure that Greg's gift doesn't take opportunities away from other students, his parents have refused to let him be considered for valedictorian, although he has been asked to make a special speech at his graduation ceremony.

"It's not a competition of who can be the smartest," his mother says. "It's an internal thing to be the best person each of us can be."

They also don't want him to reveal his SAT scores, although when asked, Greg beams like a little boy trying to keep a big secret.

"I did very well," he says.

College time

He put together a package, complete with a resume and examples of his work, from his term paper on Wordsworth to his poetry

He has applied to several colleges, including Duke, University of Virginia and Swarthmore College. He also has been invited to apply to other schools after admissions officials saw him on television, including some that have offered scholarships.

Not all schools were enthusiastic about admitting him, however, including Florida State University and the University of Florida. The Florida schools wouldn't even send him an information packet until Gov. Jeb Bush heard that the schools had snubbed Greg and intervened.

The state schools have since invited him to apply. University of Florida president John Lombardi even called Greg himself to apologize and invited him to visit the Gainesville campus. Greg and his family are visiting in June.

For the Smiths, who recently sold their home and are renting one until Greg graduates, deciding which college he should attend is more complicated than it would be if they were sending a teenager off to a dorm.

"I have to be able find a job," Bob Smith says. "It has to be a place where we want to live as a family."

Glipses of a little boy

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Toys and soccer trophies keep company with advanced textbooks in Greg's room.
His father says he worries about the pressure of college on a 10-year-old, about whether his son will burn out, and about whether, when he turns 20, he'll look back on his years spent learning and feel that he missed out on his childhood

"I have no idea if there's an upper limit to his learning," Bob Smith says.

His parents have told Greg that he can change his mind about college at any point.

"He is all self-driven. If it's not right, he can just stop. That would be more than okay with me," Greg's father says. "I'd prefer it, really."

Bob Smith says he's always delighted to see his son act his age, although even in play, Greg's mind keeps working.

When he and his dad play basketball, instead of playing horse, "we play G-R-E-G-A-R-I-O-U-S," Greg explains. When Greg shoots, his dad says, he's constantly calculating his percentages in his head.

On this particular day, as his father talks in a park near their former home, Greg plays on the jungle gym and chats with two little girls, one who used to go to his elementary school.

"Maybe we're seeing a change here. This is the first time I've seen him spend any time talking to girls," his father says, smiling proudly at his son. "He still acts like a 9-year-old sometimes, but not nearly enough. I love to see it when he does."

On another visit, the little boy slipped out when Greg sipped his chocolate milk, and when tried to perfect his jump shot in his driveway, and when he was asked about -- eek! -- that dreaded pottery class.

"Pottery!" he squeals with embarrassment. He admits it was the one subject at which he didn't excel.

He runs from his bedroom to another room to collect a couple of lumps of fired clay, one green, one white. He holds out his tiny hands to show the lumps, which he explains are supposed to be dragons.

"Picasso!" he cries, explaining that they look more like abstracts than the real thing.

"Pottery, how can I say this, wasn't one of Gregory's best subjects," his mother says with a laugh. "It was humbling." Greg had to forgo calculus last semester to take the class so he would have enough art credits to graduate.

With the exception of pottery, his parents say, they are in constant disbelief.

Janet Smith says she asked Greg once why he is so smart.

Greg told her that at night, when she and his father are asleep, he goes up into the sky and sits at the feet of God, who tells him everything he knows.

"I said, "Oh, really. What does God look like?' " Janet Smith says, smiling as she recounts her son's reply. "He said, "I don't know. I've never seen God. I only sit at his feet.' "

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Greg's senior portrait

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