Please take a seat before your eyes attempt to decipher the following words: Stephen Stafford Jr. became the youngest student in Morehouse College’s 150-year history when he began at age 13.
Most people can’t perform the mental acrobatics it takes to bend their minds around the idea of a boy, now 14, being halfway through his college education. You don’t know what to make of a teen-aged classical pianist who’s matriculating through an internationally-famed institution of higher learning with a triple major that’s enough to twist your brain into knots: pre-med, mathematics and computer science. Your brain could shut down from circuit overload from just one of those disciplines alone. Most people cannot calibrate their minds to comprehend a crawling toddler learning basic math or that Stephen learned advanced mathematics at age 6, geometry at age 7 and Algebra II at age 9.
You listen to Stafford’s story and how he was enrolled at Georgia State University in Atlanta at age 11, but left because he wasn’t made to feel welcomed. You marvel at this kid because, ironically, he comes from a city where the public schools are deemed the worst in the country, Detroit, with its grotesque 25 percent graduation rate. You listen to how Stafford’s mother and father detoured him and his older sister, Martinique, from an underachieving educational career when they home-schooled him and protected his growing mind like it was a priceless exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute.
“I wouldn’t call school ‘exciting.’ I mean, it’s school. Who calls school ‘exciting?’” he says incredulously, as I reach to the floor to pick up my lower jaw. “The thing is, [going to Morehouse] is like a normal school except the kids are older, and the coursework is a little more advanced.”
There’s nothing you can say to that, except to pay homage to Stephen’s father, Stephen Sr., who carved out a career sufficient enough to enable his wife, Michelle, to stay home. And you must praise Michelle, who tended to her children’s education as if her own life depended on it. Her tireless research and how she applied it helped her son to catapult beyond what didn’t seem remotely possible. And she is also very savvy: She tricked Stephen into college … somewhat.
“I didn’t even know I was in college at first. By the time I was 11 years old, I was taking college-level courses, and my mom couldn’t teach me. When I took the first course at Morehouse, I didn’t even know I was going to Morehouse. My mom brought home a test. She made it seem like it was just another home course. She didn’t tell me that I was taking college-level work until afterward.”
No, Stephen’s spectacular scholastic feats cannot be easily dismissed as an anomaly, an exception to the rule. His older sister, Martinique, is about to graduate from college as a teenager as well. In the Stafford household, this is normal. In fact, Stephen’s after-school — excuse me, after-college — activity itinerary reads like any normal teenager.
“When I go home, I do whatever … play video games, talk to my friends … whatever.”
If Stephen Jr. and Martinique can be viewed as stars in the world of education, then you must acknowledge the source of their brightness: Stephen Sr. and Michelle.
Stephen Jr. says he plans to get his master’s or Ph.D. in computer science and “start my own business. I’m designing stuff now.”
Digesting all of this makes you want to go and splinter the American educational system into a thousand pieces and let the shards of a fractured, antiquated system wash away into the sewer.
Because of the work ethic and diligence of Stephen’s parents, Stephen Jr. is able to use his gifts in mathematics and computer science to uplift other students by tutoring in K-12 schools as well as students twice his age enrolled at Morehouse College. He’s already been featured on CNN and ABC News and has attracted the interest of Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres and Tyra Banks. And he is as precocious as he is smart, dispensing jewels of information that impacts his chronological peers. He is peerless academically.
“You have to find at least one thing about school that you like,” Stephen Jr. says. “Because, if you can find that one thing, that will make the other six hours in school worth it.”
A tornado of emotions erupt within you because you are happy for Stephen Stafford Jr. But you are hot as molten lava because you know there are others like Stephen out there — many uncovered jewels — that we may never be able to know because they are trapped in a system that neither educates nor uplifts them.
Hopefully, Stephen’s story will inspire adults to develop more children like Stephen and his sister as well as find other kids who are growing up in quiet desperation, searching for ways to let their minds roam free. –terry shropshire