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The Smart Money Is on This Young Genius : Michael Kearney, 10, is the world's youngest college graduate and a cultural hero in Japan but finds a less enthusiastic response in the U.S.

January 15, 1995|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | Richard Kahlenberg contributes regularly to The Times

You might already have heard of Michael Kearney, who moved to the San Fernando Valley last year after graduating from college. He is an unusual member of the Class of '94.

For instance:

* He is 10 years old, the Guinness-certified world's youngest college graduate.

* His ambition is to become a TV game show host. Though he has years to change his mind, it is not an idle fancy. His family is helping him pursue it, and he has had job interviews, several on-camera auditions and a speaking part in a TV movie.

* He is a cultural hero in Japan--and only partly because his mother is Japanese-American--where a book about him and his family will soon be published, and companies want him for endorsements.

The Japanese reaction to Michael has led me to some rather sad reflections about highly intelligent children in our country. The Japanese view brilliant youngsters as national assets, not upstart smart-alecks. Michael's family has painfully discovered what many of us already knew: Americans don't have much time for smart kids.

For example, the producers of a quiz show which Michael emceed in his audition found that adults disliked having their mistakes pointed out by a kid. It didn't help that his measured IQ is nearly 200.

Michael appears unaffected by any slowdown in his career. While the quiz show producers try to figure out a format that fits him, he has applied to graduate school at USC in his college major, anthropology.

"If he was physically gifted in sports, like a tennis prodigy, there would be hundreds of places for him," says his father, Kevin, a former U.S. Navy officer. But instead of saluting Michael's extraordinary abilities--and the effort the family has put into providing an enriched educational environment--"the whole community came down on us" when Michael encountered public schools in Alabama and California, Kevin Kearney says.

U.S. society is simply not prepared to deal with the super-bright. As the Kearneys have found, rearing a child with a mind like that is a full-time job.

The Kearneys support Michael in his TV ambition and have taken him seriously since they started discovering just how smart he is. That was when he was 4 months old and started asking, "What's for dinner?" At 8 months he started reading (and became a fan of "The Price Is Right"). When he was 4 years old, he joined Mensa, an organization whose members' IQs are in the top 2% of the population; two years later, he had earned a high school certificate at home and become a freshman at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Kevin gives full credit to Michael's mother, Cassidy, for teaching him though high school and guiding his college studies.

"She was the juku here," Kearney explains, in a dual reference to the intense after-school academic programs common in Japan and to his wife's Japanese-American heritage. "Instead of giving Michael Ritalin, like the 2 million other kids who have been diagnosed hyperactive, she gave him school. Cassidy had to be a Power Ranger of motherhood."

Trained as a teacher, she previewed material in a home-study program to stay ahead of him. She attended college classes with him, and the two of them would cover the text material two weeks ahead of any test so the class session itself functioned essentially as review.

Of the Japanese, the elder Kearney says: "They see Cassidy's level of effort as identical to theirs. It's only proper to respond this way if they feel they've got a 32-bit kid in an 8-bit world."

Having exceptional children has exacted a price (Michael's sister, Maeghan, 9, is also in home study but doesn't want to start college until she's 12). Kevin, on the advice of a psychologist, left the Navy for a civilian engineering job that gave him more day hours for his family.

There was a flurry of U.S. media interest when Michael graduated from college last spring from the University of South Alabama at Mobile near Kevin's Navy assignment, but it fell off.

Kevin Kearney thinks that reflects a deeper national problem in dealing with brilliant kids. In Northern California, he says, one doctor called Michael retarded; another, hyperactive.

"The professional community had been telling us to give up and accept Michael as hyperactive," he says. "Attention deficit disorder--give him Ritalin. He has an attention surplus. He gets things faster than others.

"Every interface we had with the education system was a near disaster. All the advice we got was false. I think half the ADD kids have been misdiagnosed.

"We found that holding his books away was a punishment if he was bad. We used education to keep him busy."

Inevitably, adopting homemade solutions led the family to home computers. Without them, "we couldn't have coped," Cassidy Kearney reports.

As for Michael, he wears his excellence suavely and enjoys the attention.

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