A few days ago, Southern University officials and the local higher education community were smiling about the news that 11-year-old child prodigy Elijah Precciely would enroll at the local historically black university in spring 2019. In fact, he already had taken some classes on the Baton Rouge campus and was ready to jump into mechanical engineering. He was a media darling.
Supporting him from afar was his friend Polite Stewart Jr., another former child prodigy whose family’s home is across the back fence from Precciely.
Stewart was 14 when the same attention was heaped on him as he came to Southern. That was in the summer of 2008. He had turned down Harvard, Yale and other Ivy League schools. After news of Precciely broke, I began to look for Stewart.
Stewart was getting his new apartment together in Cambridge, Massachusetts when I caught up with him. Now 24 years old, Stewart is starting a new job at computer giant IBM in Boston. It seems so long ago that I met Stewart and his parents when I was media relations director on Southern’s Baton Rouge campus. They came in my office just before the announcement that he would be attending and majoring in physics.
Stewart, like Precciely, was a media hit — poised and thoughtful for his age.
He knows what Precciely is facing — sort of. “I believe he is going to be successful,” Stewart said of Precciely, adding that he has spoken with him many times, and he is impressed. “But there are going to be some challenges.”
His said the big class sizes in mechanical engineering will make it harder to make friends, especially for an 11-year-old. “You have to hit the ground running in mechanical engineering. ... If I had gone into mechanical engineering first, it would have been very different for me.”
“It was easier for me,” Stewart said, because there were less than 10 students in his physics courses and related classes. He was able to build friendships quickly because many of the research projects were team-oriented.
Stewart said he suffered some of the same issues that he says other child prodigies have dealt with. Building friendships and dealing with relationships with women are often tough. “You have to learn how to respect another person’s boundaries,” he said, something he was not really prepared for when he was 14 and 15 years old.
And, about girls, he said, you might have a crush on someone but don’t know how to deal with it. “Sometimes, you just follow them around. You don’t know how to let that person be in their space.”
He laughed when he explained: “One thing with me was when I came to school, puberty had already hit me. Elijah will be hitting puberty while he is in school.”
There is also that parent thing. “My parents took a hands-off approach. ... They talked to me sometimes to see if I felt ostracized. ... I didn’t.” They generally left Stewart to deal with his own situations. “It was of cardinal importance that they did not get involved,” he said.
But it will be difficult for that to happen for someone Precciely’s age.
Would he send a prodigy of his to college early?
“I think for me, at the time, it was the right thing for me,” Stewart said. “I think dealing with everything when I did helped me be the person that I am today, and I think am a good person.”
However, Stewart said he would consider home schooling his child, but he wouldn’t send him to college early. Instead, he said, he would have him take undergraduate college courses online and graduate. He would send his child to college for a graduate program.
“Because what’s the point of going to college if you can’t enjoy the entirety of the college experience?” he said. That comment said a lot.
“Even though I am well adjusted,” he said, it sometimes took effort to deal with grown-up situations thrust at him as a 15- and 16-year-old.
When he graduated from Southern the first time in 2012, he was a post-baccalaureate fellow at the prestigious Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, where he tackled a laundry list of complicated science-related jobs. The then-18-year-old had already been part of science projects at other universities.
He completed his time there and quietly returned to Southern a few years ago — not to get a master’s degree, but to start over and get a mechanical engineering degree. His attention had turned toward other areas such as software development, web design and application, and software engineering. He finished in May.
Stewart said he will be rooting for his neighbor, friend and fellow prodigy, Precciely.
When we talked, Stewart was focused on shopping for groceries, pots and pans, a TV, and waiting for his furniture to arrive; he wanted to scope out the 24-hour gym in his apartment complex.
Getting the groceries was important. “I’ve learned to throw down in the kitchen since I have been on my own,” he said, laughing.
As for this new phase of his life, Stewart said, “I’m ready.”
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly Advocate column, at firstname.lastname@example.org.