immortalvisions, LV, csn, and other current CS/CogSci (f00dave, prolog, twinbee, deire, yahvah) and academia-bound (jereeza, auriam, oikade, narvi, figgylicious) students: this is for you.
For those of you who don't know, I skipped the last two years of high school at Severn School 1 and started my undergraduate program at Johns Hopkins University with sophomore standing. This is the reason I completed a concurrent B.S./Master's program in 1993, when I was 19, and earned a doctorate in computer science when I was 24.
A little background is in order. In 1983, my father (a chemical engineer) moved to Somerville, NJ to take a position at J. M. Huber. The recession had hit the phosphates industry hard, and Davy McKee, the company where he had worked before, had laid off about half of its staff. My dad jumped at the opportunity to take a new job, even though the position wasn't a perfect match, because my mom had two younger sisters who lived in Piscataway and Hillsboro, respectively. 2 To date, I had only ever attended Catholic-run preschools and Baptist primary schools. Fifth grade was my first experience with public school, but that is another story for another time.
Something interesting that happened when I started fifth grade at Hillsboro School was that my math/science and English/history teachers noticed that I was significantly ahead of most other students in reading and problem-solving aptitude, and sent me to be screened for the school Gifted and Talented (GT) program. The screen test consisted of an oral interview where the GT teacher posed problems ranging from numerical sequence memorization to analogies, geometric and analytical reasoning. I must have done well, for a week later, I had joined one of my best friends, Ari Chakravarty, in the GT class. The next four months were four of the happiest in my life. I will tell you about them another time. I read voraciously, on everything from Greco-Roman mythology (my favorite subject other than entomology and space travel; I liked paleontology, but not fanatically so - ants and the Odyssey were my passions at 10). I got my first computer on my tenth birthday, became hooked on BASIC "programming" (really hacking code listings from books and magazines), and became really hooked on futurist books such as the Usborne Future Cities/Robots/Space Travel series by Gatland and Jeffries. I wrote a lot - future city blueprints, sketches of various SF short stories (some of which I finished in high school), video game ideas, and fanfic ideas (for a Narnia miniseries, for a Return of The Jedi sequel, etc.). Then my dad switched jobs again and we had to move back to Florida. I was momentarily devastated. Overnight, I came down with a massive throat infection, that persisted for nearly two weeks, or about a week into a month-long trip we took to Taiwan.
After returning to the States, I enrolled at Plant City Elementary for about six weeks and participated a little in the fifth grade GT program, such as it was, but the teacher and I never clicked. The fact that 90% of the kids at this school were blooming idiots might have something to do with it.
Then, in July of 1984, we moved back to Lakeland, FL. I didn't get along with my homeroom teacher or the computer teacher (yet another story), but Mrs. Holland, the Alpha (GT program) teacher, was my hero. She let us have tremendous amounts of free time to do everything from scripting and recording our own one-person comedy and dramatic skits to conducting exigeses of Encyclopedia Brown and Madeleine L'Engle's Time Trilogy (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in The Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet). By the winter of 1984-1985, though, my father had gotten the chance to return to Smith-Corona Mettalurgicals (SCM) Chemicals, the company he left to move to FL. He went up to MD for six months while my mother and I stayed in Florida.
Why am I digressing into my pre-CTY history, you may well ask?
Well, those of us CTYers who've been through good GT programs and then lost them due to parental job-related relocation can tell you: it seems like a small thing to adults, but to the gifted child, it has the melodramatic quality of an amputation.
By June, 1985, I was busy plotting world (or at least school) domination. Unfortunately, I had but a vague notion of how to carry out my plan without henchpeople. Fortunately for me, this seventh grade year coincided with the CTY Talent Search. I took the SAT and scored 1250 (600 Verbal, 650 Math) and 43 on the TSWE. This put me in the Regional Award (second highest) category and made me eligible for CTY programs (430V/500M were the cutoffs at the time).
I attended three sessions of CTY, all commuter programs:
- JHU, summer 1986: MATH - Algebra II (3 weeks), College Algebra (3 weeks)
- JHU, fall 1986: MATH - College Algebra (6 weeks), Trigonometry (6 weeks)
- JHU, summer 1987: MATH - Analytic Geometry (6 weeks)
As you can see, I was quite insanely ambitious when I was 12. JHU's commuter program was a 6-week one that lasted through both residential sessions. Being quite oblivious to own limitations, I attempted to finish both an Algebra II course during CTY Session I and an "Algebra III" course during Session II. I actually succeeded in passing the Algebra II standardized test with the requisite 90th percentile score, but did not pass the Algebra III test. I repeated the course for six weeks in the fall, and again fell a little short (80th or 85th %ile). I remember feeling very discouraged for a single day, and wholly determined to rock precalculus on its heels the next. (At this time, I was taking eighth-grade Geometry at Severna Park Middle School.)
In June and July of 1987, I took Analytic Geometry and barely made the 90th percentile cutoff (by one question). I was then 13 and in the process of going from Severna Park Middle to Severn. That fall, I went to the Upper School head, Julian Domenech, and asked for permission to file a course sequence that would allow me to graduate in two years, by the end of tenth grade. Mr. Domenech was skeptical at the time, but receptive, and informed me that I would have to carry a double course load. "No problem," I grinned.
I started Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus AB in August, 1987. My teacher, Beth Francis MacCallum, was very good - and noticed right away that I seemed a little out of my depth. I picked things up quickly enough to score a 5 on the AP exam, though. You would have thought I'd won the lottery to hear me crowing and strutting around in May, 1988.
By this time I had started taking summer courses at Anne Arundel Community College (AACC). In the fall of 1987, I took an introductory FORTRAN programming course with my dad at AACC every Saturday. Between this and the math team, I had quite a busy schedule. The next spring, I took Fundamentals of Biology and aced all the exams. I figured I could simply add evening and summer courses.
In the summers of 1988 and 1989 I took General Chemistry I and II (with labs); on evenings and weekends, I took Composition and Literature; and by distance learning (a cable TV channel titled Mind Extension University 3), I took two semesters of U.S. History.
By the fall of 1988 I had applied to JHU early decision, and was accepted after an on-campus interview. I knew my way around campus pretty well by then. I only scored high enough (4) on the AP Calculus BC exam to earn college credit; on the AP Computer Science and AP Physics C exams, my scores were too low (3 and 2, respectively). One lesson I would suggest from this is that a non-calculus physics course taken with a Calc II equivalent do not together amount to a calculus-based physics course. Our well-meaning physics teacher (Mr. Joel Madden) tried to give us a cram course in calculus-based, classical Newtonian mechanics. Through little fault of his own, we didn't pick it up, and were slaughtered very nearly to a person on the Physics C exam (I believe the highest score was a 3).
So, I entered JHU with enough credit to start in with sophomore standing. All's well that ends well, right? Not quite. On my first day as an undergrad, I went to meet with Cathy Jancuk, the academic advisor for the Engineering College. Cathy was fully 9 months pregnant when I spoke to her and went into labor just a couple of hours after getting off work that day. I don't blame her for missing the fact that I had not actually gotten credit for my AP CompSci (Pascal-based CS1) course. The upshot was that it put me into Data Structures (600.327, later 600.226) during my first semester.
What was the upshot of all this grade-skipping? Well, dear reader:
- Theoretical CS handicap - I had a hard time understanding data structures and algorithms without a firm programming background or any coursework in discrete math, automata theory, or symbolic logic. I took all three of these during my third semester, though, so I was back on track by 1990, or so I thought. In some ways, I've been a little behind in theoretical CS ever since, and only now, over 13 years later and half a decade into my faculty career, am I finally getting caught up.
- Math comprehension deficit - My other mathematical background suffered longer-term consequences. I never felt qualified to take any courses on continuous and real analysis, optimization, abstract algebra, or even number theory. I took combinatorics and graph theory, but became dreadfully afraid of numerical analysis even after I earned a solid 'A' in linear algebra. I was a mediocre (mid-to-high 'B') student in both vector calculus and differential equations. It took me the rest of my undergraduate career to make up the comprehension deficit.
- Programming deficiency - I spent about a year hacking WWIV BBSes and doors before Hopkins, and that was the extent ot my C knowledge going in. A semester of intensive study and suffering (in the spring of 1990) was enough to bring me up to speed.
- Dropped programs of study - To this day, I am officially a physics dropout. I quit the 3-semester option for engineering majors after General Physics I (Newtonian mechanics) and am probably the only CS major in the classes of 1989-1993 to have graduated without taking General Physics II (Electromagnetism). As I mentioned above, I also opted out of half of the MathSci curriculum.
- Bad study habits - I became a desperation-monger. When some phenomena such as Ultimate Pressure work well to motivate us, many of us have the tendency to adopt it as a convention, even to the point of becoming dependent on the pressure.
Coda: And yet, would I do it over again? I'd have to say, yes, but I would have skipped different grades (8th and 11th, for example).
That's all, folks.
Have a good night, and I hope the experiences I relate above have some relevance to or resonance with you.
1 an excellent preparatory school in Severna Park, Maryland
2 My aunt Camille (Kai-Ming) and her husband Rene (Jen-Hui) had just graduated from Rutgers and had a newborn baby, my cousin Melody. My aunt Cathy (Kai-Ching) and her husband Pang-Chia had a 7-year old daughter (Emily) and a 3-year old son (Jonathan).
3 "Oh, is that what they call it these days?" laughed my classmates.