Young, Gifted, and Female
By all measures, Elizabeth Mann is a multi-talented, extremely intelligent 17-year-old. She's won awards in science, math, computing, and writing. She's popular with her teachers, and she's headed for Harvard. But she's discovered it can be painful to be young, gifted, and female
The sound comes from the back of the throat, a tiny noise that is doomed to failure even as it begins. “Wait,” Elizabeth Mann is trying to say, attempting to slip into a discussion that is swirling around her. It is a loud discussion with overlapping voices, but Elizabeth is a close listener, and she has heard something that needs correcting, or at least elaboration. She also is a patient listener who doesn’t blurt out her thoughts but waits for an opening to fit into. Now, hearing the other voices drop off, sensing her moment, she begins to speak, only to realize immediately that she has miscalculated, that the opening has already closed, that she doesn’t stand a chance, that she is on the precipice of another of those moments in which, sooner or later, she will end up awkwardly trailing off into silence without having been heard. And so she does what she often seems to do in these situations: She gives in, chokes off the word, lets it die as a squeak, and goes back to listening, patiently listening, waiting for the next opportunity. She doesn’t seem bothered, and neither does she seem surprised.
The setting for this is Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md. It is third period, Quantum Physics, the most difficult class in the school’s math, science, and computer magnet program. The class’s mission is nothing less than trying to understand the forces that rule the universe, and, to that end, seven of the country’s brightest high school seniors sit around a table, working their way through a book on Einstein’s general theory of relativity. There is Steve Chien, Blair High’s valedictorian. There is Josh Weitz, the salutatorian. There is an intense-looking boy named Sudheer Shukla, and another boy named Danilo Almeida, and another named Jeff Tseng, and another named Jeff Wang, and, lastly, there is Elizabeth. The girl.
This day’s topic: something about the failings of Euclidian geometry and an equation called the generalized Pythagorean theorem for Gaussian coordinates. It all seems indecipherable, but, as soon as the bell rings, the discussion is off and running, and, very quickly, as is usually the case, it is dominated by Steve, who sits to Elizabeth’s right, and Josh, who sits to her left.
Steve talks. Josh interrupts. Steve mumbles. Josh interrupts that. Steve grabs a marker, goes to the board, and tries to work something out. Josh goes to the board, too, using one hand to draw and the other to hold a cheese sandwich, which he has been wolfing down.
And through it all, Elizabeth sits, listening.
She tries to say, “Wait” and falls silent.
She tries again. “Soooo,” she manages to get out.
She tries a third time, this time snapping her fingers and lightly slapping the table, and, finally, after that has failed, she gets up, draws something on the board, and explains in her always polite way, a way that often turns a statement into a question, that maybe this is the way to look at what they’ve been talking about? Then she sits and resumes listening, not to Steve or Josh or any of the other boys but to the teacher, who is complimenting her for what she has done. “Beautiful,” he says. “It really simplifies what we’ve been talking about. Very nice. Very nice.”
The moment, surely, is sweet but vanishes in an instant. This seems not to surprise Elizabeth either. She is in her second year of this class, of being the girl among the boys, and by now she knows the pattern. The discussion resumes, voices again overlap, and Elizabeth says nothing more, not until long after the bell has rung, when she tries to explain why the class, once her favorite, has lately made her feel uncomfortable. She says, “All last year I loved it, and, for most of the beginning of this year, I did, and now sometimes, I’m just scared.” She says, “I feel like ‘The Girl’ in the class. It’s something I’m very conscious of, almost every minute in there.” She says, “I have a certain fear that somehow when I’m in that class, I’m this impostor who doesn’t really understand.”
She does understand, though. She gets nothing but A’s in the class, and the teacher, Harvey Alperin, says if she isn’t the best student, she is one of the top two. Her discomfort, it turns out, has nothing to do with studying the forces that rule the universe. Those she can figure out. Instead, it comes from forces far more puzzling, the ones that rule the life of a 17-year-old girl who happens to be smart.
She is more than smart, in fact. She is brilliant. She scored 1570 (out of 1600) on the SATs, 800 (out of 800) on her achievement test in math, and 800 on her achievement test in physics. She is a National Merit finalist and a presidential scholar semifinalist, and she was accepted into every college she applied to, finally settling on Harvard. She also has never smoked a cigarette nor drunk the first drop of alcohol, rarely fights with her parents and doesn’t yell at her younger brother. She also has perfect hearing, and pretty good vision, and clear blue eyes, and strawberry-blond hair, and cream-colored skin, and a good smile, and perfect teeth, and short fingernails that sometimes, at night, when she is on the phone, and no one is around to see what she is doing, she will paint pink. “And then I’ll think: Should I take this off before school?” And she always does.
Pink, she knows, doesn’t fit in with her reputation, and neither does anything else that could seem too frivolous. She is seen as someone who never falters and never has any doubts about her academic abilities. Some of the younger girls in the magnet program look at her as a kind of role model, while teachers seem to regard her as the student they’ve been waiting for for their entire careers. Her computer teacher, Mary Ellen Verona, says, “I think Elizabeth’s the most incredible girl I’ve taught, no two ways about it.” Her guidance counselor, Leah Cutler, uses the term “lovely modesty” to describe her, and her journalism teacher, John Mathwin, says, “Elizabeth’s amazing. I wrote a recommendation for her earlier this year. She gave me her resume, and it was three pages long, single-spaced, with things like ‘Sixth in the World’ in some kind of competition.”
Actually, the listing says “Twelfth-Place in World.” This was for something called Odyssey of the Mind, which is one of the many competitions that exist as a kind of subculture for the smartest high school students around the country. The best known of these is probably the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, in which Elizabeth placed ninth and received a $10,000 scholarship, but there are plenty of others, too. There is the SuperQuest national supercomputing challenge, in which a team consisting of Elizabeth and three other Blair students placed first, winning for their school a free year of access to a supercomputer. There is the American Regions Mathematics League, in which Elizabeth scored so high on tests that she was selected to go to Russia as part of a math exchange program. The competitions go on and on, all year round, all with their differences and one common characteristic: For years, they have largely been the province of boys.
Which Elizabeth knows as well as anyone. After being named one of the top 10 Westinghouse winners, she volunteered that gender might have had something to do with the results, that the judges might have seen in her a way to send a signal that girls can do well, too. Never mind that the first-place winner was a girl, which might be signal enough; this was how Elizabeth said she felt, and no wonder—every year, every month, every week seems to bring another study detailing how dismal things are for females in math and science and how they need to be encouraged. One study says that the number of women going into either field is “disproportionately low.” Another says that “gender differences in science achievement are not decreasing but increasing.” Another says that although girls have as much ability as boys, they often start developing sour attitudes toward math and science in middle school and soon lose all interest. Others say that’s because in classrooms boys dominate, that girls are hesitant to speak up out of fear that they’ll look foolish if they’re wrong, that eventually girls reach the point where they not only don’t do well but also decide they’re incapable.
On and on the studies go, endlessly on, all making the same points about how lousy things are for females. Math, it seems, eventually becomes nothing more than a skill to balance a checkbook, while science, horrible science, becomes a nauseating memory of formaldehyde and some frogs. And meanwhile, at Blair High School, in the midst of all of this, held up constantly as proof of what girls can be, is Elizabeth.
There are other girls in Blair’s magnet (about one-third of the 400 students are female), but, as Mary Ellen Verona says of even the best ones, “They’re pretty sharp, but Elizabeth’s always going to come out on top.” A few might be smarter in a particular subject on a particular day, but, as Mike Haney, who ran the magnet program until going on leave last year, says, “I suppose if there’s any Renaissance person at Blair High School, it’s Elizabeth.”
She wins science awards. She wins math awards. She wins computing awards. She wins writing awards. She is co-editor of the school paper. She has a 4.0 grade-point average. She speaks French, and some German, and Basic, and Fortran, and Pascal.
And her resume is actually four pages long.
She is only 17, so there isn’t that much of a life story to tell, but this is the outline so far:
She was born in Philadelphia in 1975, the first child of Jim Mann, who was premed at Harvard before deciding to become a journalist, and Carolyn Dexter, a professor of classical literature, who grew up thinking she would go to MIT until the day she confided this to her favorite uncle, “and he laughed and said, ‘Girls can’t go there, don’t be silly,’ and I never breathed that thought to another person.”
The family moved to the Washington, D.C., area in 1977, settling in Silver Spring in a house not far from Blair. From 1st through 3rd grade, Elizabeth attended an elementary school that offered a French immersion program. Then, because of Jim’s job as a correspondent with The Los Angeles Times, the family moved to China, where Elizabeth attended grades 4 through 6. Then she came back to the math-and-science magnet program at Takoma Park (Md.) Intermediate, where she had a teacher named Darlyn Counihan, who pushed and pushed her into joining the school’s math team and remembers her blossoming into someone “brighter than I am, or ever was.” And then it was on to Blair, where Steve Chien, who has known Elizabeth since 7th grade, who remembers writing an essay then in which he used the word humankind rather than mankind, who remembers Elizabeth seeing that word and drawing a smiley face next to it, says she has become:
“A good diplomat,” is what her father says of her.
“Totally cooperative,” says her mother. “She’s obliging, obedient. She’s everything our school system rewards.
“Has she shown you her resume?” she asks. “It’ll make you embarrassed about your own.”
Of all the forces shaping Elizabeth’s life, her mother, arguably, has been the strongest. She is a person of high energy and strong opinions who, since Elizabeth was a baby, has been trying to indoctrinate her against the various subliminal ways of the world. Once, in 1st grade, Elizabeth brought home a work sheet that had a drawing of a woman and another drawing of a man and other drawings of various things that Elizabeth was supposed to match to the appropriate person. “There was a scrub brush, a needle and thread, a broom,” Carolyn remembers. Also “a hammer, a saw, a screwdriver...” She remembers being offended by the assignment, phoning the teacher and saying, “You must have gotten a lot of calls on this,” and the teacher saying, “Well, no, actually, you’re the only one.” She also remembers explaining to Elizabeth what she was upset about, that in their house, for instance, Mother fixes the broken things, and Father does the dishes, and, lastly, she remembers Elizabeth, pointing to the drawing, saying, “But Mother, this is reality.”
So the lessons continued, and, in fact, continue still: Here’s what’s wrong with this advertisement, here’s what’s wrong with this picture, here’s what’s wrong with this song. Once, last year, when the two of them were in the car, the song on the radio was one Elizabeth really liked, with the refrain “You’re every woman in the world to me,” and Carolyn began explaining that the lyrics suggested women were generic, interchangeable, even irrelevant. Elizabeth didn’t say too much back, not then, but later she wrote an essay about it. “It was a great song,” she wrote, “the kind you can play over and over with a tape but wait for it to come on the radio because it just makes your day to hear a great song completely unexpectedly—it means the radio is on your side. But near the end of the song, my Mom piped up as usual and pointed out a different interpretation, one which made the entire song sound demeaning to women. And that always leaves you wondering, and you can never love the song as much because you always have to wonder. I hated her in that moment, hated her for forcing me to interpret things this way because once you see, you can’t forget, and it begins to poison everything you find.” Not only did Elizabeth write that, she entered it in an essay contest. And, of course, won. And Carolyn, being a good mother, told her how proud she was and, a year after the fact, continues to brag about its thoughtfulness, even though, when Elizabeth is out of earshot, she explains, “What she’s furious about is I’m right. It’s a displaced anger. What she’s really angry about is it’s a sexist world, and she personalizes it by being angry at me.”
All of this is said pleasantly. Carolyn is a steady, supportive presence to her daughter, as is Jim, as is every other part of Elizabeth’s home life, including the home itself. It is a comfortable place through and through, not at all dressed up. There’s a fat, likable dog at the front door, a Statue of Liberty lamp with a red fringe shade in the living room, a world map in the dining room, some red sneakers under the kitchen table that Carolyn reminds Elizabeth have been there for a week, a front yard that needs weeding, a back yard that needs mowing, books everywhere, a TV that’s rarely used, and a stereo playing classical music. Up the stairs, past the wall of old family photographs, is Elizabeth’s room. Nothing in it offers a recipe for how to raise a brilliant child; it is simply a room, a little cluttered, books here, magazines there, a few pieces of art on the walls, and half a dozen stuffed animals on the trundle bed. The view out the window is of a park across the street, while just beyond the tree line, a little too far away to see, is the other great force in Elizabeth’s life so far: old, sagging Montgomery Blair.
Even without the magnet program, it would have been her high school. Blair is in the lower eastern part of Maryland’s Montgomery County, the most multicultural part, which is one of the main reasons Elizabeth’s family decided to move to the neighborhood. Eight years ago, however, as the school’s minority population was nearing the 70 percent mark, a consensus formed that things were a little out of whack. That’s when the magnet program was installed at Blair, put there as a way to even things out by attracting white students from other parts of the county.
It has done that, but slowly. Mike Haney, the first coordinator of the magnet, remembers how unnerved parents from the more affluent parts of the county were by the thought of sending their children to Blair. “A real tough sell,” is how he describes the first couple of years. “And the problem was greater with girls because parents seem to be especially protective of their daughters.” The first year’s magnet class of 72 students was about 26 percent female; the second year’s class wasn’t much better. Just as troubling, a disproportionate number of girls who did enroll began dropping out and returning to their neighborhood schools.
The reason for that, Haney came to believe, wasn’t Blair but the magnet program itself. It had been structured to mirror a boy’s emotional development, he realized, which in many ways was at odds with a girl’s. For instance, an early emphasis on physics, rather than life sciences, was something many of the girls said they didn’t like. They also didn’t like the strong emphasis on using computers. “Why?” Haney remembers asking a girl one day as they looked at some boys in the computer lab who were busy typing away. “They like it,” he said. “They’ll sit there all day.” “Yeah,” the girl said, “but look at the social skills of those boys.”
So the program was recast to seem a little friendlier toward girls—competition was de-emphasized, group work was stressed—and, by the time Elizabeth arrived four years ago, things were humming nicely along. The number of girls still hadn’t come close to 50 percent (and hasn’t so far), but at least the migration had stopped.
Not that everything was perfect, or is perfect yet. These are students, after all, who operate at levels different from the rest of the students at Blair, or most any other high school for that matter. Out of this year’s magnet class of 94 graduating seniors, 21 applied to Harvard. “Twentyone applications to Harvard is ridiculous,” says Leah Cutler, the guidance counselor. But that’s the magnet. Whether or not the program consciously tries to avoid competition, these are students who are highly motivated to achieve and, as a component of that, are sensitive to any break, any advantage, any hint of favoritism or extra attention that might not go their way.
All of which is to say that Elizabeth, The Girl, “The Darling,” the joy of almost every teacher who has taught her, has had her share of difficult moments.
“Elizabeth has always borne the burden of teachers being absolutely charmed by her,” says Cutler. “They are in awe of her. They have set her up as a paragon in their minds and, I think, in the mind of her peers, which has made her road that much harder.”
“She’s in a very difficult position,” agrees Mike Haney. “I think she is held in such high esteem by teachers that other students, no matter how gifted they are, feel they’re always being compared to Elizabeth.”
Sure enough, in class one day, a teacher refers to a list of history’s greatest mathematicians and predicts that someday Elizabeth could be among them.
And Elizabeth, upon hearing this, can’t help but cringe a bit.
Another day, the pronouncement involves Elizabeth’s eventual place in a book a teacher has of the 100 smartest people of all time.
And Elizabeth, hearing this, cringes some more.
“From what I’ve heard and what I can see, you get the general impression they’re all overly enamored of me,” she says of her teachers. “I guess in and of itself, that’s nice. I mean, you can’t ever be upset that people like you. So that’s fine.
“The consequences of it are what make me uneasy.”
“What’d you get?”
“What’d you get?”
Elizabeth is talking to Steve Chien, whose up-and-down friendship with her has been one of the consequences.
They are trying to settle a bet about who got the better score on a 20-question quiz. At stake is a bag of M&Ms.
“Is your number even?” Steve asks, trying to pin down the number of questions Elizabeth got right.
“Is it a prime?”
“Is it a perfect square?”
“Aarggh,” he says, realizing she had to have gotten a 15, knowing that he got less.
“Aarggh,” she says back, knowing that they had classified the bet as “modest,” which means the quiz was considered so negligible that the lower score wins, as opposed to “immodest,” which means the higher score wins. She looks at his expression and realizes the M&Ms are his.
“It’s not competitive,” Elizabeth says later, but anyone who knows Elizabeth and Steve would say that it isn’t anything else. “It’s just sort of joking around,” Elizabeth says, but both she and Steve know there’s more to it than that, that what began as an essay with a smiley face scribbled on it has developed into a complicated relationship that gets toward the heart of Elizabeth’s unease.
‘Do you know what the Kellogg- Briand Pact is?” Steve asks one day. “It was signed in, I think, August 1928 between 62 nations, and it basically outlawed war. Well, Elizabeth and I have had so many arguments, we actually signed our own Kellogg-Briand Pact.”
There was a period when the arguments might have been about books or music, but, over time, they edged toward being about Elizabeth herself and how much attention she seems to receive. Steve, too, was a Westinghouse finalist, finishing one place higher than Elizabeth. He, too, was a member of the SuperQuest team. And yet, as he knows so well, she gets written about in the paper, she gets interviewed on TV, she gets the attention of teachers, she even got to go to Russia as part of the American Regions Math League exchange program even though his test scores were at least equal to hers. She got to go to Russia, and he got to stay home. He was so bothered by this, by the thought that gender rather than raw score might play a role in the selection, he began wearing a T-shirt that read, “The National Science Foundation uses quotas to send females and minorities to the Soviet Union on the ARML Soviet exchange program, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” He wore it, and he got in trouble for it, and she went to Russia, and she never gets in trouble for anything.
Those who know Steve would say that his complaints aren’t rooted in jealousy—that he and Elizabeth are too close for that—but in the belief that preferential treatment of any type is fundamentally unfair. He is known to his friends as a moralist and also, just as applicable here, as a feminist. In the classes he and Elizabeth take together, the two of them always look at each other and exchange half-smiles whenever someone uses a male pronoun, rueful acknowledgment of how narrow the modern world remains. He wants things to be equal, nothing more, nothing less, which is why it gnaws at him that Elizabeth gets treated as if her achievements are that much more remarkable because she’s a female. “If you look at what’s happened to Elizabeth in her four years in the magnet, there isn’t one example of her being disadvantaged,” he says. “I have a hard time complaining. I’ve gotten a lot out of the magnet program. But no one has gotten as much out of it as she has. Let me make it clear. Nobody has gotten as much attention out of the program as her.
“I’m not the only person who feels this way,” he adds.
And he isn’t.
“No one dislikes her because she’s not dislikable, but I think there’s a lot of resentment,” says Elizabeth’s closest friend, Valerie Wang.
“I think she continually underestimates the depth of resentment there is,” says Steve. Nonetheless, she is aware it exists, he says, has to be, no doubt about it, because of a phone conversation they had last school year around the time of the SuperQuest competition.
That was the competition in which Steve, Elizabeth, and two other Blair students went to Alabama for three weeks to compete against several other schools. That was when Elizabeth ended up spending a good part of her time with a boy from a Louisiana school and, at the end of the three weeks, sat with him on the plane to Atlanta, and, only after he got on a different plane, to Louisiana, did she sit with Steve, who thought she had behaved in a way that was “not intellectual.” Even “goofy.”
The phone conversation, though, wasn’t about that. It was about the perception that Elizabeth, in preparing her entry for the competition, had gotten an inequitable amount of assistance from Mary Ellen Verona, the computer teacher—that they had worked side by side for hours on end to the exclusion of other students who wanted Verona’s help, that Verona had actually done some of Elizabeth’s work. “Nonsense,” Verona says, but such was the word around school, and Steve felt it was his moral duty to call Elizabeth and tell her.
So he did. And when word came that her entry had been chosen as one of the winners—a truly remarkable achievement—she was of course happy, but she also felt a little diminished. “It was partially jarring,” she says of Steve’s call, “because I guess I didn’t realize there was that resentment. I guess I was pretty disturbed.” She said nothing about it, though. It’s not her way. And that might have been the end of it except for another phone call a few months later, this one from Josh Weitz.
Josh is the one who sits to Elizabeth’s left in the third period physics class, the salutatorian, who, like Elizabeth and Steve, is in the stratosphere of high school students. He is also the boyfriend of Kristen Ault, one of Elizabeth’s closest friends, and, although he doesn’t talk to Elizabeth as much as Steve does, he and Kristen talk about the same kinds of things. For instance, there was a discussion about the role of gender in the way people behave in class. “Like in Complex Analysis,” Josh says of one math class he and Kristen take together. “She hadn’t raised a point all year, and, after I had gone through an explanation one day, she said she’d had that down, and I asked her why she didn’t say anything, and she said, well, she just wasn’t sure about it. I said, ‘Well, there’s no reason not to speak up.’ “ And so a day or two later, Kristen did speak up. Except, says Josh, what she said was “slightly off. And I corrected her.” Which of course embarrassed her, although Josh, who is the one always going back and forth with Steve, correcting and being corrected as if both things are as rudimentary as blinking, didn’t realize this until later when Kristen told him.
This, then, is who called Elizabeth when everyone was getting applications ready for the Westinghouse competition. He asked if she could bring a printout of the project she had done, along with her entry application, to school the next day. He said he just wanted to see it, that’s all, but what he really wanted to know was whether she had listed Verona as her adviser, a role that suggests general help, or as her mentor, which suggests help at a higher level of involvement. “I didn’t realize what he was asking,” Elizabeth says. “I sort of hung up, and then as soon as I hung up, it was just this trembling, this ‘What is he asking, and why?’ “ So there was a second conversation in which Josh said he wanted to know how Verona had been listed, and Elizabeth said as adviser, and Josh zeroed in on her from there, asking if she was really satisfied with that designation, if it really explained Verona’s role. “What I really wanted by calling her was for her to think about it,” he says now, “because sometimes the problem of getting a lot of help is you get so used to it, you don’t acknowledge it.”
That may have been his intent, but what happened was that Elizabeth became terribly upset, and the conversation was concluded, and out of 1,600 entries, Josh went on to finish in the top 300, and Elizabeth went on to finish in the top 10, and, once again, even though she had achieved something truly remarkable, she felt somewhat diminished.
Which makes Carolyn, her mother, incensed. “It would be one thing if she had come out of nowhere and ended up in the top 10 of Westinghouse, but look at her resume since 7th grade. Go back to 4th grade,” she says. “She is succeeding at every level of what males traditionally have been good at.
“You know what it is?” she continues. “You can’t any longer say she got it because she’s a girl, which is what they think, so they say, ‘Well, she got it because she got extra help because she’s a girl.’ It’s just another way of saying, ‘She’s a girl.’ “
Elizabeth thinks her mother is “probably” right about this. Once again, however, she said little about the conversation to anyone, not even to Verona, who would have assured her that “adviser” was indeed the appropriate designation. Instead, she kept all of her thoughts, including some rising doubts, to herself.
And that might have been the end of it except for one more thing, a final contest, the Montgomery Area Science Fair, which would start off with 350 students competing against one another and come down to Elizabeth, Josh, and Steve.
The contest, a weekend affair, is always held at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. It is a vast complex in Gaithersburg, Md., with polished hallways and endless laboratories and also a portrait gallery of 78 distinguished alumni, 76 of whom are men. Elizabeth was here once before, on a field trip, and found the windowless laboratories so dulling that she went home wondering whether a life in science was really for her. But here she is, back again, competing against such projects as “Fluoride, Schmloride?!,” “Development of a Helical Shunt for Use in Heart Bypass,” and “The Confused Digger Wasp.”
Her project’s title: “A Parallel Imple- mentation of the Wavelet Transform.”
“This project implements a wavelet transform on a massively parallel computer, the nCUBE 2,” her summary says. “[It] develops the algorithms required to parallelize the wavelet transform, performs a transform on an nCUBE 2 supercomputer, and shows that with an optimum number of processors, the parallel transform can indeed be performed more quickly than the preexisting recursive algorithm.”
This is the project with which she won SuperQuest and Westinghouse. It is not only a paper but also an actual computer program that she worked on for more than a year, using a hookup to a university supercomputer to refine it. The program is on display, as is her research paper, as is her summary, as is a journal she kept of the daily progress of her work. “Oh horrors,” is the entry one day, early on, when things seemed to be falling apart. “Hey, this is slick!” she penciled in a few months later, when she finally got the program to work.
Steve, too, is here with his Westinghouse project, a mathematical computation called “Multi-Dimensional Extension of Wythoff’s Game,” while Josh has come with something completely new, begun after the Westinghouse competition ended. Its title is “Particle Displacement Velocimetry Analysis,” but more interesting to Elizabeth is that it’s a computerscience project. His other project would have been entered in the physics category of the fair; his new one is in the same category as hers. Not only that, but also the physical setup puts them just around the corner from each other. Standing by her project, she can’t see Josh, but she can hear everything he says.
Now, here come the first judges, and Elizabeth hears Josh explaining his project in that engaging, barge-ahead way of his, pausing at one point to say, “Stop me if you have any questions.” He waits, hears no questions, plunges on. Elizabeth, meanwhile, starts twirling an amethyst ring that her parents gave her for her 17th birthday and is slipping one foot in and out of a shoe when the judges round the corner and stop in front of her. “Hi,” she says, smiling, trying to get her foot back in the shoe, and then, in that polite way of hers, the way that turns answers into questions, she begins telling them about what she has done.
“You start with one mother wave?” she says. “And break down the frequency of it by dilating it? And..”
And this is how it goes all morning long. There are two types of judges circulating—the judges for the fair, who will choose a winner from each category to compete for a few Grand Awards, and the judges representing several dozen companies and organizations, who will be giving out certificates, prizes, and cash. The group that Elizabeth is talking to is from TRW; not far behind is NASA; and the American Nuclear Society; and the CIA; and then comes Richard Gonchar, the first of the category judges for computer science.
“Tell me about it,” he says to Elizabeth, and, as she does, the second of the category judges, David Hillman, approaches Josh and asks the same thing. For a time, the two of them are talking at once.
“My project is the ‘Particle Displacement Velocimetry Analysis’...” Josh says.
“...the wavelet transform...” says Elizabeth.
“...do you have any questions?...” asks Josh.
“...right, right. Yeah. Yeah...” says Elizabeth.
This goes on for several minutes. Then Gonchar makes his way toward Josh, and Hillman makes his way toward Elizabeth, and the whole thing starts again, except that this time, before Elizabeth can get going, Hillman says to her, “I’ve seen you somewhere before.”
“Oh?” she says.
“Were you here last year?” he asks.
He thinks about this while she stands in silence, hands clasped, feet together, ankles almost touching, waiting. He shakes his head, and she continues to wait. Perhaps there is an urge to tell him that he might have seen her picture in the paper, that she was in the paper after winning Westinghouse, that she finished ninth in Westinghouse, ninth out of 1,600 students, students not just from Montgomery County but from the entire country, the Westinghouse! But Elizabeth would never say anything like that. Never. Patiently, she waits until finally Hillman shrugs, and then she goes on explaining her project.
“Any practical applications?” he asks.
“OK. Yes,” she says. “Cardiology....”
“I know,” he interrupts. “I talked to you last year when you were trying to find somebody to talk to about the wave-let transform.”
“Oh,” she says, suddenly remembering, too.
“Who’d you find?” he asks.
“Well, no one,” she says.
“And you went ahead anyway?”
“Well,” he says. “I’m impressed.”
She smiles and unclasps her hands, and he asks a few more questions and moves on to the next display. There are a few more judges from some of the various organizations still floating around, but the judging for her category is done, and at noon the decision is announced.
Elizabeth wins first place.
And so does Josh.
Kristen—Elizabeth’s friend and Josh’s girlfriend—is there with a camera and asks the two of them to stand side by side. “Look friendly,” she says. They move a little closer. “Look chummy,” she says, and, for a moment, they both smile. She takes one picture, just one, and they separate and go on to the next level of competition, the Grand Award level in which they’ll be judged not only against each other but also against the other category winners, including the winner of the math category, Steve.
For this, a new batch of judges is engaged. They come to Elizabeth first, spending about five minutes asking questions before moving around the corner to Josh.
Where they spend six minutes. Maybe seven.
Then they move down the hall to Steve. He is too far away for Elizabeth or Josh to hear what is being said, but after five minutes they can see he is still talking, and after 10 minutes they can see he is still talking, and after 15 minutes not only is he still talking but the judges are also now sitting in chairs, leaning forward and appearing in no particular hurry to leave.
So it surprises no one when, the next day, at the awards ceremony, after the special awards have been given out and Elizabeth, Josh, and Steve have won an assortment of certificates and savings bonds and calculators, it is announced that one of the two Grand Award winners for physical science is Steve.
“Yessss!” he says when he hears his name. He pounds his fist on his leg and runs up on stage, grinning all the way, where he joins the other Grand Award winner, who also is grinning:
They are the winners, and Elizabeth is named the first runner-up. They will go on to the International Science Fair, and Elizabeth won’t. They come offstage and are surrounded by their families and friends, and Elizabeth walks over to them with their other prizes, which she has thought to gather up from under their seats. “Thanks,” says Josh, taking his things from her. He is still smiling. So is Steve. So is Elizabeth, but then she isn’t. She is not quite happy and not quite sad, and she walks out of the auditorium by herself, nearly bumping into one of her teachers as she goes through the door.
“Whoops,” she says.
“Congratulations, Elizabeth,” the teacher says.
“Thank you,” she says.
“It hasn’t been a bad year for you.”
“It’s only the beginning.”
Politely then, Elizabeth’s last high school competition comes to an end. Soon she will be on to Harvard; followed, she imagines, by graduate school; followed, she imagines further, by a full life in which, one day, a line will be crossed, and all of the breathless moments that once were at the heart of her four-page resume will be far gone. But not forgotten. “I think I’ll recognize that this year was pretty hard,” is how she supposes this time will one day look. “I think the first three years were relatively good ones. I learned a lot. I’ve had a lot of opportunities. But I guess this winter and spring will always be pretty painful.”
It is nearly the end of high school when she says this, only a matter of weeks until graduation. It’s a time when most seniors are in their final slide, but, for Elizabeth, everything is the same as ever. At home, as usual, she is the first awake and the last to bed, working until all hours on whatever is left to do. And at school, in third period physics, she is back to trying to get a word in edgewise, back to being caught in every way between Josh and Steve.
“It was nice not only to get the grand prize but to beat her,” Josh is honest enough to say of the science fair.
Steve, meanwhile, decides it’s time to give Elizabeth another call.
They have been doing well. Their Kellogg-Briand Pact has been working. Instead of arguing, they have been talking about “intellectual” things, as Steve describes them, “arcane things...poetry, and music, and books,” but this time the conversation becomes personal, and, as they will later remember it, Elizabeth says she’s going to go to Harvard, and Steve says he’s going to go there, too, and Elizabeth says, “I’m living in your shadow,” and Steve says, “I’m living in your shadow,” and, suddenly, to Steve’s astonishment, Elizabeth begins to cry.
“You’re the genius,” she says. “I’m a teacher’s pet.”
“How can you say that?” he says.
“Well, look at our projects,” she says. “You had a brilliant project, and I had help from Ms. Verona.”
“I don’t think I’ve proven anything here to teachers,” he says.
“Well, at least you don’t feel like you haven’t proven anything to yourself,” she says.
On it goes, into the night, and, the next day, Steve is still thinking about it, still replaying it, still surprised. “Because on the outside, Elizabeth is the cheeriest person you’ll ever see. On the outside, Elizabeth is always confident,” he says. “Maybe it was the harshness of what she said, the brutality of the extremes. It was so blunt. I mean, I’m not a genius, and she’s not a teacher’s pet. I mean, it never really occurred to me that she had any doubts about herself.”
But everyone has doubts, even Steve, even Josh, and even the smartest girl of all, who on the day after Steve’s call is sitting outside of her house, idly making wishes. They are the wishes of someone who is brilliant, and someone who is a girl, and is as yet unsure how to be both.
“I wish I had beautiful hair,” she says.
“I wish I were better at physics and math than I am.”
“I wish I could stay awake 24 hours a day.”
“I wish I had a car.”
“I wish I could figure out why I’ve lost so much respect from Josh, and what I could do about it, and what I’m doing wrong.”
“I wish teachers wouldn’t single out people.”
“I wish I could be respected for my mind and yet liked as a person regardless of what my mind is like.”
“I wish, well, this is a hard one. I wish people knew about my insecurities, so they wouldn’t think I’m conceited, as apparently they do.”
She says this knowing that someone does know now, someone who has known her for nearly six years and yet didn’t seem to realize until their phone call that being the smart girl, being Elizabeth, can be difficult—realized this not so much because of what she said, or because of what has been said to her, but because for a few minutes one night, he heard her cry.
And that brings Elizabeth to her last wish.
“I wish he didn’t know,” she says. “Because now my secret’s out.”
Vol. 04, Issue 09, Pages 32-37