By Kirsten Scharnberg
Tribune Staff Writer
October 1, 2000 



The genius hears the whispers.

"That's him," they say, and the genius pretends not to hear.

"He's some kind of prodigy," they say, and the genius does not return their

"It's the 9-year-old freshman," they say, and the genius starts walking

The genius sits alone in the front row of English 106.

Psst ...

He adjusts his green-tinted goggles in the corner of a crowded, third-floor
chemistry lab.

Psst ...

He becomes visibly annoyed when the school librarian asks for proof he is a
real student.

Psst ...

"Who cares if they whisper?" the genius asks, and the determined set of his
jaw indicates he means every word of it.

The genius knows the whisperers do not wish to offend. He knows they do not
mean to make him feel like more of an outsider than he already is. He knows
how hard it would be to resist talking about the few dramatic details known
about this 4-foot-3-inch person who sticks out on Loyola University's lush
green campus like a horse jockey in a crowd of offensive linemen:

The genius is 9.

He is so brilliant, tests cannot measure his IQ.

And he is a full-time, pre-med college freshman who got a 106 percent on his
most recent chemistry exam and who Loyola officials think is the youngest
college student in the country.

The whisperers know these limited details about the genius, and they discuss
them endlessly. But virtually no one--save for the gentle priest who has
become his friend and the few matronly college administrators who look after
him--knows the genius' real name or his extraordinary story, the one that
began five years ago when his mother embarked on the usually very ordinary
journey of enrolling her firstborn in kindergarten.

They do not know the genius plays Beethoven like a professional pianist and
grows chamomile in his garden and considers Martin Luther King Jr. the most
respectable person ever.

They do not know the genius' wee, picture-perfect, 4-year-old sister is
suspected to be equally brilliant, if not more so.

And they do not know that behind it all, behind the genius' straight A's and
poker-faced classroom demeanor and infuriatingly correct answers to all his
professors' impossible questions, is a kind-hearted boy who has read the
entire Bible three times and who stops to play with ladybugs between class
and who saves every cent of his birthday money to buy his mother expensive
jewelry from Bloomingdale's.

So the people whisper, and with a shrug of his bony, slender shoulders, Sho
Yano says he doesn't care.

He just wishes they would stop calling him "the genius."

Piano prodigy

The first sign there was something special about Sho Yano came when he was

His mother, Kyung Yano, a Korean immigrant with a master's degree in art
history, remembers the day she was practicing the piano, trying to complete
one of Chopin's most complicated compositions.

Again and again, the young mother replayed the same bar, growing more
frustrated each time she blundered the beautiful notes. She finally gave up
and walked to the kitchen, leaving little Sho playing with his toys at the
foot of the piano.

Suddenly, standing at the sink, Kyung Yano heard the flawless music drifting
from the living room.

"People don't believe this story," the pretty, outgoing woman says, "and I
didn't at first either, but that's the moment I knew Sho was special. But I
figured he was only gifted in music."

But it turned out Sho was too smart for kindergarten. Too smart for a gifted
school. Too smart for the high school lessons in calculus and microbiology
that his mother prepared for him from a home-schooling package.

The boy read Shakespeare and Salinger and C.S. Lewis.

He begged for more math homework.

He would get so absorbed in science books that someone would have to pull
the book away to get his attention.

"I would have to study late at night to teach him in the morning," Kyung
Yano said, "and sometimes when I didn't know how to teach him something,
he'd just take the pencil and say, `Let me show you, mom.'"

Sho giggles at the story and puts his arm around his mother's shoulders. His
little sister, Sayuri, who already is showing many of the same talents,
giggles too.

"We are just ordinary people," Sho's business executive father, Katsura
Yano, says modestly, stealing a quick glance at his spectacled, smiling son.
"This has been a real journey for us."

So at the age of 9, Sho told his parents what he craved:

College. A four-year university. Classes that would challenge him for the
first time in his life.

The Yanos considered Northwestern University, but admissions officers there
expressed concern about his age. The University of Chicago had the same
reservations, and Sho was bitterly disappointed.

His mother remembers him whining: "But, mom, they have produced so many
Nobel Prize winners."

Through a family friend who worked at Loyola University, the Yanos started
considering the historic, working-class Jesuit university on Chicago's North

Several admissions officers sat down with Sho. From his side of the polished
conference table, the poised boy told them exactly what he was thinking:

Pre-med undergrad, with an early emphasis on chemistry and biology. Minor in
classical music, piano specifically. Graduate from college at 12. Medical
school by 14, earlier if possible.

From across the table, the university representatives looked at the
handsome, floppy-haired boy in amazement. Then Sho remembers Dr. Jeff
Doering, the head of the biology department, smiling and saying this:

"I guess we'll just have to rig up a stool or something up so he can reach
the microscopes."

Welcome to college

On his first day of college, Sho Yano barely made a ripple at Loyola.

His mother dropped him off at biology class, and the boy struggled up eight
flights of stairs to the classroom. At 65 pounds, he couldn't lift his book
bag, so he pulled it behind him on wheels.

When he took his seat, Sho heard someone in the back whisper, "You've got to
be kidding," and that was how it all began.

At first only the students in the science department knew about the pre-med
freshman who was still planning his 10th birthday party.

Then their roommates knew.

Then their roommates' classmates knew.

And by the end of the week, as Sho Yano pulled his book-laden bag behind
him, as he prepared for his first college-level English quiz and finally
figured out where all his classrooms were, the whispers had started:

A genius was on campus.

Campus life

Sho Yano plops into a seat in the front row of Professor Claire Sanchez's
English 106 class. The closest student sits three rows behind him.

"What did you write your papers on?" Sho asks casually, turning to the
students behind him.

Someone wrote on doctor-assisted suicides. Someone wrote on the Vietnam War.

"What did you write about?" 18-year-old Loyola volleyball standout Shawn
Schroeder asks.

"It's on the link between cell phones and cancer," Sho responds, offering
Schroeder a look at a typed first draft.

"My God, Sho," another student says. "You've got almost four pages of
single-spaced type there. It only has to be three pages of double space."

"Come on, buddy," Schroeder says, teasing. "Take it easy on us."

Then everyone laughs, and someone gives Sho a high-five.

It had taken almost three weeks, but Sho Yano finally is one of them. The
fact is, it's hard to talk to someone like a kid when you're using words
like prophase and metaphase and karyotype and mitosis. So pretty soon you
just talk to him like an equal, like a classmate, like someone who could
maybe help you with your homework, even if his little feet can't quite touch
the ground when he's sitting at his desk.

But that doesn't make the whispers stop.

It doesn't stop one student from yelling, "Hey, shorty," across the campus

And it doesn't stop Bailey Ziegler, 18, from announcing to her classmates,
standing just inches from Sho's desk, that she has already figured out the
topic for her next English paper:

"I'm going to write about how underage kids shouldn't go to college because
they're just not socially ready."

1st impressions

Rev. John J. Piderit, the president of Loyola University, adored the boy
from the start:

There he was, 9 years old, feet dangling from the wooden chair in the
priest's ornate university office.

The man and child talked about Loyola. About Sho's life goals. About how
much he loved his family.

"There's just something about that boy," Piderit said for weeks after
meeting Sho and formally welcoming him to Loyola University.

And how could Piderit not befriend the boy?

Sho was polite.

He was honest.

He'd already read the entire Bible three times. (Only the first two times
were with an edition that had pictures.)

"I was particularly struck with how great God's gifts are when looking at
this young child," Piderit said.

So Sho stops by the university offices whenever he wants. The secretaries
pat his back when he talks to them. And the professors talk about how much
they love it when he packs up his rolling book bag after class, heads out
the door, then turns around to primly wave goodbye.

"He's a pure delight," Piderit said.

Growing up gifted

Peter Rosenstein grew up gifted.

He knows people say it is a blessing--and it is in many regards--but
sometimes it almost seems like a curse. The executive director of the
National Association for Gifted Children tries to explain what it must feel
like to be so different that only one percent of one percent of one percent
of the population is as smart as you, according to intelligence experts.

"It must seem very lonely," he said. "Imagine walking around in a world
where 99.999 percent of people are not like you."

Nobody knows what Sho's IQ is. Most IQ tests stop measuring at about 200.
Any higher than that, and people are described as "off the chart." That's

Ask Rosenstein the obvious questions:

Does this kind of intelligence run in families or is it a fluke? Is it
genetic or socialized? Do most of these children turn out to be
well-adjusted adults? How high might their IQs be since they ace the
standard that measures only to about 200?

"Don't know. Don't know. Don't know. Don't know," he says, laughing.

But the question remains: Is college the best place for these kids?

Another expert, Joseph Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on
the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut, said the main
prediction of whether genius children succeed is if they have friends and
activities that encourage them to act like regular kids.

"If there is some balance between his intellectual and social development,
he'll probably do fine," Renzulli said.

Kyung Yano says they are doing everything to give Sho that balance:

At tae kwon do practice, he races around with other kids his age.

He talks about his weekend with the students in his college classes.

And hanging in his room is a prized letter from a friend that reads: "I'm so
glad you joined our church, my little friend. Oh, what an honor to have a

Around the country, there are other children taking college courses, but
Loyola officials believe Sho is the youngest one attending full time.

In New York, 6-year-old Justin Chapman is taking one course at the
University of Rochester. In Ashland, Va., 10-year-old Greg Smith is a
freshman at Randolph-Macon College. And 12-year-old Jessica Meeker started
Penn State University in September.

"Still," Rosenstein says, "sometimes these kids feel like no one really
understands them because most of our minds can't even begin to comprehend
what is going on in theirs."

Maybe Sho does feel a little that way. At the end of last week, he sent a
heartfelt e-mail to someone he had recently met.

"Most of the people think of me as only an academic genius," he wrote, "but
I hope you found something besides that."

Odds and ends

Here's what else there is to know about Sho Yano:

Sometimes in class he takes notes about things before the professors even
say them.

He won't read Harry Potter; he thinks Pokemon is absurd; he rarely watches

He shares with his sister.

By the end of the day, his jeans pockets are full of the things he has
collected: dead bugs and flowers, brown leaves and pebbles, dry twigs and

Bach is his hero.

He talks to his father about philosophy, starts behaving when his mother
threatens a "time out," and ignores questions he thinks are too
insignificant to answer.

He has an Einstein mouse pad.

He collects rocks, has stuffed animals in his room and sets his alarm clock
for 4 a.m. so he can track the course of stars.

He giggles.

When he plays the piano and can't perform a piece perfectly, he'll sit there
for hours, fingers flying, until he cries.

His first reaction, upon finding out he got a 1500 (out of 1600) on his SATs
was, "I'm sure I got all the answers right. They must have made a mistake."

His favorite food is shrimp.

Call him Sho

Something happens over dinner at a Chinese restaurant that sums up Sho Yano,
part regular boy, part whiz kid:

While drinking his milk with a straw, he blows bubbles into the glass until
the white liquid splatters onto the table. Then, as his father wipes up the
mess, Sho leans back in his chair and begins delivering a soliloquy on the
moral and ethical implications of genetic cloning.

As the meal ends--Sho didn't finish his garlic shrimp--he tells his mom he
is tired. He thinks he'll go straight to bed when they get home.

It's a big day tomorrow: chemistry lab. He will have to calculate the
empirical formula of zinc oxide.

Rubbing his eyes, while his dad pays the check, Sho opens his fortune
cookie: "The weekend ahead predicts enjoyment."

The boy's eyes turn starry, and he talks excitedly about what he would do on
his perfect weekend: "I'd finish my homework," he says.

As the family gets ready to leave, Sho talks with his parents about what
everyone calls him on campus. The genius. He hates that word.

"I wouldn't call myself a genius," he says, eyes getting sleepier. "The word
really doesn't mean anything. I would just say that I have, for whatever
reason, a very special gift from God."

So please, just call him Sho.

The name, after all, means "happiness with God."