Its a story almost worthy of Hollywood.
In fact, similar tales have been spun with typical West Coast
dazzle, where gifted children often are depicted as frail
recluses, robot-like super-geeks or bumbling social misfits.
Twelve-year-old Alex Brueggeman, however, has a cheery disposition
that lacks the drama of the silver screen. Instead, he lives
a well-balanced life that includes attending The University
of Memphis as a sophomore.
ABC to A = BC
Alex is the youngest person ever to attend The U of M. He
is profoundly gifted (PG); by definition, his
IQ exceeds 180. He and his parents, Gay McCarter, an artist,
and Mike Brueggeman, a neurologist, live in nearby Jackson,
Tenn. They say The U of Ms combination of location and
professionalism, along with a good dose of Southern hospitality,
has been too good to miss.
I like the classes and a lot of the teachers,
Alex says. I like the labs best of all. The only thing
I dont like about it is the drive. If I could only pick
up this University and plop it down in Jackson!
Alexs parents had suspected he might be college-bound
earlier than most when they noticed his exceptional ability
Alex started reading road signs when he was 2,
McCarter says. We thought that was sort of unusual!
Most learning curves go in 45-degree angles, but for PG kids,
the learning curve is vertical they just shoot up like
In kindergarten, Alex was scolded for reading 7th-grade-level
books instead of nursery rhymes. It was apparent early on
that he would need a drastically different education than
Three years of home schooling followed, and Alex absorbed
information like a sponge as he blazed through the curriculum.
By age 9, he clearly needed something more.
Jackson (Tenn.) State Community College was a temporary answer.
Alex eased into collegiate work with a second-year Spanish
class. It was a success. He aced the course, and his classmates
elected him as treasurer of the Spanish Club.
Alex continued the next two years sampling classes at The
U of Ms Jackson campus and Lambuth University before
ultimately taking advantage of The U of Ms excellent
research facilities and able-minded professors.
Alex has been well-received at The U of M, but most peoples
conception of what a profoundly gifted child is like tends
to be exaggerated. Perhaps the most aggravating misconception
people tend to have, McCarter says, is that Alex should have
stayed in public school with children his own age.
I just cant imagine Alex being in sixth grade
right now, she says. Thats where hed
be based on his age. Hed be bored out of his mind. Thats
one reason we like Memphis so much: They treat him like a
college sophomore, not a sixth-grader.
Alex is well-adjusted to college life, but hes faced
his fair share of challenges along the way.
One memorable experience came in the third grade, when he
entered a model-rocket project in a science fair.
The project was top-notch. It was so good, in fact, that the
judges doubted the work was actually Alexs.
The worst thing was none of the judges asked me about
it, he says. Well, one talked to me, but all he
asked was How much of this did you do?
The disbelieving judges kept first prize away from Alexs
project, but unable to prove any wrongdoing, they begrudgingly
gave him second place. The project was later published in
Many people dont understand Alex because he sits beyond
their range of personal experiences, McCarter says. There
arent many PG children to know, period. Some research
suggests there are as little as one or two profoundly gifted
children for every one million births.
Even on a college campus, there can be the occasional misunderstanding.
Skeptics sometimes surface when an elementary-age child walks
into a college classroom, sits down and starts taking notes.
At my first day at Lambuth, in my very first class,
Alex says, a guy came in, pointed his finger in my face,
and said You dont belong here get out.
I actually had to pull out my student ID and show it to him.
There also were a couple of run-ins with students at The
U of M who felt the need in class to prove Alex wrong at every
possible opportunity. These kinds of criticisms can be very
taxing on PG children, the majority of whom are perfectionists
and highly sensitive.
Alexs parents advise him to take the negativity like
water off a ducks back. He does admit that
hes highly sensitive, but says its not debilitating.
I dont cry at AT&T commercials or anything,
he says. Both he and his parents agree that attending The
U of M has been an overall rewarding experience socially and
kid, extraordinary brain
In his chemistry class, Alex chicken-scratches notes while
sitting quietly and attentively. Dr. Antonio Ferreira (PhD
00), assistant professor of chemistry, guides the students
through a lecture on mass, volume and density.
The lessons difficulty is apparent on several students
faces, who furl their brows or stare blankly at the blackboard.
Some students write down concepts and examples at a furious
pace, but Alex just jots down an occasional note or equation.
A lot of this is still review for me, he says,
But itll get harder soon enough.
After class, Alex signs the attendance roster. Several students
greet him with a typical Hi, Alex, or Hey,
Alex, hows it going? One late arriver even asks
him what had happened during the first 10 minutes of class.
Perhaps the most striking personal trait Ive
noticed with Alexander, Ferreira says, is the
way that other students seem to seek out his opinion and assistance.
Ive noticed that students much older than he will stop
him after class and ask him for help with chemistry. Its
almost as if they are drawn to him.
Alex may be a minor celebrity on campus, but friendly disposition
has as much to do with it as brainpower. His physical appearance
helps further to shake off negative child genius
stereotypes some hold. Hes a handsome kid, complete
with freckled cheeks and a charming smile.
Alex is no oddity, just an ordinary kid with an extraordinary
brain. And despite his status, his childhood remains mostly
intact. He is quick to swap strategies for Baldurs Gate,
a popular computer game. (Never mind that he tweaked the games
programming code for his own amusement!) He makes slightly
off-color jokes, and blushes afterward. He likes to play basketball
with his friends. He doodles in the margins of his school
Alexs mother says hes a young man in a
unique situation, but defining him solely as a college
student paints an incomplete picture. Lifes definitely
not just textbooks and Bunsen burners. Alexs extracurricular
schedule is staggering at times. He has a third-degree black
belt in Tae Kwan Do, and he takes violin lessons. He likes
racquetball, fencing, and going hiking and camping with his
Alexs social life includes maintaining friends whose
ages and locations are quite varied.
Friends I have made in college are usually through
my classes, he says. I dont have as much
opportunity to develop those friendships that long
drive home interferes quite a bit. I like walking between
classes and greeting several friends I know, and catching
up with how their classes are going this semester or sitting
with them in class, sharing jokes. It makes the campus seem
smaller and friendlier.
Then there are friends his own age. Some are strictly long
distance PG friends from all over the country, but Alex
keeps in touch through phone calls and occasional visits.
The last one in Texas was a blast! he says. Six
guys, ages 11 to 13, and a huge pillow fight. We also sat
up half the night and most of the next day having a marathon
Magic: The Gathering card game. It was great.
Alex is able to see his friends in Jackson more frequently.
They keep busy inside on the computer, and outside playing
basketball or riding scooters and skateboards.
Some people might wonder how long it will take before Alex
jets off to some Ivy League college to finish his studies.
Several aspects of The U of M, though, are keeping Alex firmly
in place. Through the Honors College, he can take classes
that are smaller, more challenging and thus more rewarding.
Honors students have been surprised and intrigued
by Alexs presence, says Honors Program Director Melinda
Jones, but he has had no trouble stepping up to the role of
Im always amazed that he sits down with college
students and fits in perfectly, Dr. Jones says. Hes
very attentive and contributes to any conversation or lecture.
Ferreira also commends Alexs discipline and willingness
In a world where so many students are in class merely
to earn a grade, Alexander stands out as a young man who demands
more of himself, he says. He exhibits a true desire
to learn the material.
Jones had put enough faith in Alexs abilities to nominate
him for the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, an
honor he received. Only one other student from The U of M
was nominated, and only 300 students nationwide were chosen.
Another campus capstone is The U of Ms admirable collection
of first-rate research equipment, including treasures such
as the Universitys atomic force microscope, the audiology
lab and the Institute for Intelligent Systems AutoTutor
The U of M has a great deal going for it, McCarter
says. It is one of the best-kept secrets in the South.
We wouldnt make the three-hour round-trip drive every
day if it wasnt worth it.
As it stands now, Alex anticipates getting his bachelors
of science in biology with a minor in chemistry by 2005. At
that pace, hell have his masters of science in
molecular biology by 2007. Hell be 17 years old
an age when most are applying for college, not putting the
finishing touches on their masters thesis.
Then, after a well-deserved vacation to Europe,
Alex wants to pursue a Ph.D. in plant molecular genetics.
Human genetics interests me a lot, but plant genetics
havent been delved into as much, he says. I
love studying plants. I even have some carnivorous plants
in my room.
Alex says that plants could hold the solutions to certain
human diseases or environmental problems. For example, he
says, some plants are being developed to break down oil, mercury
and other industrial by-products. Its a noble way to
turn his personal blessings back onto the world.
Hollywood would be disappointed with Alexs balanced,
straight-ahead approach to life, but he is already used to
bending those child genius stereotypes. Super-geek,