OAKLAND — When Cole Smith, a student at Messalonskee Middle School, was invited to visit Johns Hopkins University to be honored as one of the brightest middle school students in the world, he was excited.
But Smith, a tall and skinny eighth grader whose presence is marked by a seemingly endless store of energy, didn’t make it to the ceremony.
“I had soccer,” the 14-year-old said Thursday.
That’s Cole Smith in a nutshell.
He is smart, but that’s not all he is.
Smith also wants all the world has to offer to a young teen — sports, video games, hunting, horsing around with friends at the lake, and catching the latest installment of the Hunger Games franchise at the movie theater.
Johns Hopkins knows intelligence, having taught or employed 36 Nobel laureates over the years, including four current faculty members. It doesn’t call a middle school student one of the brightest in the world lightly.
Before making that assessment, the Baltimore university’s Center for Talented Youth administers a rigorous test to more than 35,000 students in 69 countries.
The purpose is to identify the best and the brightest students, who can then be helped to achieve more of their potential.
Taking the test is a process in itself.
Every year for the last six years, Cole has made an annual trek from his Oakland home to the Sylvan Learning Center in South Portland.
The students who take the test have generally been identified by school administrators as having extraordinary promise. In Cole’s case, when he was in second grade at Mount Merici Academy in Waterville, the principal at his elementary school saw his promise and helped his family fill out the paperwork for the test.
Even in comparison with those promising students who have been hand-picked for the test, he has done well.
When he was in grades two through seven, he scored in the 95th percentile or above, meaning that he generally did better than 19 out of 20 students taking the test.
That’s good — great, in fact — but it doesn’t merit an invitation to the Grand Ceremony, the term the center uses to describe its main recognition event in Maryland, according to Maria Blackburn, a communications specialist at the Center for Talented Youth. To get there, a student has to score in the top 3 percent of all test takers.
This year, Cole’s mother, Kelly Smith, drove him to South Portland. For the last 15 minutes of the drive, he said, they discussed the test, its importance and last-minute strategies that might help him.
Inside the lobby of the learning center, there was a row of eight computers, each in its own cubicle. Cole sat down, logged in, and began nearly three intense hours under the watchful eye of a test proctor and security cameras, which made sure test-takers used nothing more than a pencil and piece of scrap paper to do calculations.
There were more than 100 questions, broken into verbal and math categories.
One of Cole’s challenges is his restlessness. His speech is low and rapid, making it seem as if he has more words in his head than he knows what to do with.
Sitting in a chair recently, talking about the exam, he was rarely still, twisting the pull string of his sweatshirt around his finger or rocking his leg one moment, then turning his head to smile at a fellow student passing in the hallway.
When he took the test in South Portland last January, he said his natural impulse was to hurry, but he knew he would do better if he took more time on each problem, especially in math.
“I wanted to get out of there, but I knew it was an important international test,” he said.
So he compromised. Cole flew through the math section at his natural pace, and then took the time afterward to review each answer and double-check it for accuracy.
He scored in the 99th percentile, better than 99 out of 100 test-takers.
That’s how you get an invitation to the Grand Ceremony.
Cole’s achievements got him invited to two ceremonies. He attended the first, at Boston University, for a broader range of achievers. The second, at Johns Hopkins, conflicted with an important game in Kittery for the Novas, a Wateville-area soccer team that plays in the competitive Maine Classic League.
The Novas won a semifinal game that day, and went on to beat the Patriots from Gray for the Classic Division State Championship on Nov. 3 in Freeport.
His mother said she and Cole’s father, Todd Smith, who owns an engineering company, didn’t mind when Cole said he’d rather go to the game.
“I knew soccer was important to him too,” she said. “We had already done the one at BU, so I gave him a choice.”
Cole has many choices ahead of him.
Like many young people, he has a shifting series of interests and aspirations. Soccer has been a rare constant. Last year, he wanted to be an architect, but now he’s not so sure. He used to ski, and now he plays hockey. He tried football or basketball for a while, then turned to something else. He took up hunting for the first time this year.
The restless energy that keeps Cole moving in the classroom also keeps him moving on the soccer field, sometimes to his detriment. He said when he suffered a minor ankle sprain last year, he ignored advice to stay off of it for a while, and instead went back to playing soccer the next day. He reinjured it, and had to spend five weeks in recovery.
He had found a limit, but he didn’t mind.
“I don’t say die,” he said. “I keep moving.”
Always moving forward
Like all schools in Regional School Unit 18, Messalonskee Middle School has been making the transition to a standards-based system that allows students to proceed at their own pace, rather than grouping them by grades.
One of the criticisms that opponents of the system raised last year was that outstanding students like Cole were completing all the available work quickly and then didn’t have anything to do. Cole said last year teachers were caught without a lesson plan to accommodate his rapid learning pace.
This year, he said, has been better. Every time he finishes a task, the teacher has another challenge for him to tackle. It’s kept him engaged, he said, and he likes his teachers.
“Any big transition is going to have some issues,” Susan Bradshaw, a school counselor at Messalonskee, said. “Now, we’re prepared to keep students engaged.”
Cole said most of his classroom achievements are effortless. He doesn’t struggle to master the new concepts. They just make intuitive sense to him, and he also has excellent recall.
His one academic weakness, he said, can be coming up with a creative, off-the-wall idea. If his teacher tells him to make up and write a mystery story, he said, he can be paralyzed. Once the idea comes, he has no problem communicating it effectively. It’s just that moment of inspiration that he finds elusive.
“Cole is very black and white when it comes to things,” his mother said. “I think that is why he enjoys math so much. Always a way to get the answer.”
His triumphs and struggles in the classroom aren’t the focus of his life, though. Like his peers, Cole’s major preoccupations are having fun, playing sports and fitting in.
Sometimes, he said, his academic achievements make it more difficult to blend in with the crowd, an important survival skill in the sometimes-painful world of eighth grade. For that reason, when he got his test results, he didn’t tell anyone at school, not even his closest friends, for three months.
“He would much rather talk about his team, whether it’s soccer, hockey or baseball,” his mother said.
Not many Maine students have distinguished themselves in this way. Blackburn said Johns Hopkins doesn’t release a state-by-state breakdown, but Kelly Smith said only three students from Maine made the cut for the Grand Ceremony this year.
For a student as gifted as Cole, the world offers a tantalizing list of opportunities. He has a chance to go to the best schools, travel the world and achieve great things in challenging and rewarding professions.
For now, though, those major life decisions are far away, in a distant future. He hasn’t yet chosen a career, or set his heart on a particular college. His counselor, Bradshaw, said that’s normal for a 14-year-old no matter what his intelligence.
And so, often, the much more urgent decision facing Cole is how to best spend a leisurely afternoon with his friends.
He’s usually accommodating with his peers, he said, deferring to their interests to decide the day’s activity, but for the energetic Cole, there is a limit.
“I’ll play video games,” he said, “but not for four hours. At some point, we have to get outside.”