When most kids are told by their parents that they’re not old enough to play the often violent video games enjoyed by their peers, they either fuss until they get their way or sneak over to a friend’s house to play. Ten-year-old John Lee, however, took a different approach: He programmed his own games.
This kind of resourcefulness has always placed John and his equally gifted 11-year-old brother Thomas a step ahead of their peers. Well, more like three or four steps ahead. The brothers, who should be entering fifth and sixth grade, instead began high school at Proviso Math and Science Academy last Friday.
“We know it is unusual. We do have people who are questioning us: ‘Why do you put them under this microscope?’ But I believe maybe you shouldn’t be average, or just take the average course. I don’t know if you should want that for your kids,” said father Eddie Lee.
The family, which has called Forest Park home for about six years, first became aware of their two oldest sons’ gifts when John and Thomas scored off the charts on IQ tests during their kindergarten years. They attended Betsy Ross Elementary School for three years before switching to home-schooling.
Like most brothers, the two have differing recollections of the past-or maybe they just like to push each other’s buttons. “When he was in second grade he was begging, ‘Can we do home school so we can study what we want to study?” John recalls of his older brother.
Thomas, on the other hand, denies feeling like he was held back by having to take classes with ‘regular’ kids. “I had fun-I just accepted it,” he said.
The brothers remain close with their friends from Betsy Ross, and they hope those friendships will help them retain a sense of normalcy as they embark on their unusual journey.
Asked about the reaction of the brothers’ buddies when they learned their friends had been accepted to the prestigious magnet school, Thomas said, “I think they’re happy for me.” John agreed, noting, “They haven’t shown any jealousy.”
During an interview last Wednesday, just two days before beginning high school, the boys seemed surprisingly relaxed. The ease with which they passed the school’s rigorous admissions exam (“It was pretty simple,” noted Thomas) seems to have instilled them with confidence that the school’s curriculum will be manageable.
“I started thinking about how the kids are going to be old, but I think it’ll be fine,” said Thomas. John was even more confident: “Just because the movies show mean kids doesn’t mean they’re like that at all high schools.” They say they’ve already made some friends during the school’s orientation program last week.
Their father, Eddie, seems more conflicted than his sons. “I think some of our friends may think we’re not doing the right thing. I think that’s our biggest concern, that we’re getting scrutinized for the decision. It’s hard for the kids, but it’s hard on us too,” he said. “It is a very, very challenging time for us-it’s not a decision taken lightly.”
Eddie, an engineer, has been largely responsible for keeping the boys on track during their home-schooling years, quizzing them nightly to ensure they were keeping up with their studies. He always made sure they maintained a normal social life in addition to being challenged academically, enrolling them in the Chicago Children’s Choir, chess clubs, and other activities. He sent them to classes at the Sylvan Learning Center to ensure they remained comfortable in a structured classroom setting.
“Our dad helped us-he really did help us,” said Thomas, as John nodded in agreement. Both hope to follow in their father’s footsteps with their future careers-John looking forward to working in video game programming and Thomas aspiring to work in electrical engineering. “Anything hands on,” he explains.
When John mentions he’s looking forward to taking English classes from a native English speaker, or that he thinks he’ll benefit from not having to wait until his dad gets home from work to have someone to ask questions about what he’s learned, Thomas indicates his disapproval.
“What’s dad going to think when he reads it?” he asks.
The boys probably don’t realize that, despite his obvious success, their father has his own doubts about his performance as a teacher. Asked if he would recommend home-schooling to other families, he says, “I’m really not an educator, so it’s hard for me to give a recommendation. In my case, I think it may have worked out, but without real English teachers they may not have gotten all those benefits.” The boy’s parents came to this country from Korea.
Eddie knows his sons will almost certainly succeed academically, as does his wife Mae.
“I am their mother, so I know what they’re capable of doing,” she answers when asked if she is proud of her children’s accomplishments. The greater concern is how they will manage to adapt socially among the high school crowd.
“They need to contribute and just be very humble. They need to handle the social pressure and they need to conduct themselves properly. That’ll be much more important than competing academically,” said Eddie.
For their part, the boys seem eager to ease their father’s concerns, and look forward to serving as role models for other gifted youth. John says he’d advise kids to figure out what they’re good at and focus on perfecting it. “I got in here because I’m really good at math,” he notes. But after a moment’s thought, he adds, “but don’t just do one thing; you also have to be good at other stuff.”
Thomas advises others who may be considering skipping a few grades to just relax and make the decision that’s right for them. “It’ll be fine if you come here and fine if you don’t. It’s your choice,” he says.
The brothers seem confident that they made the right choice, enough so that John says he wants to stay at the high school for the full four years.
Thomas, on the other hand, admits, “Skipping a grade might not be too bad.”