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A math student's uncommon equation

TAMPA — Michael Rodeman, a growing boy who has not eaten breakfast, would very much like to harvest the wind. He might build a water-powered car, if he knew anything about cars, and he is working on the mystery that confounded Albert Einstein. • Michael thinks many barriers would fall if he could prove Einstein's Theory of Everything. We could sail from one galaxy to another. We could read minds. We could even teleport.

Michael would need to teleport 1.9 miles to get from his house, in a rough part of town called Jackson Heights, to Middleton High School, which is, in some ways, his actual home. • He stays there 10 to 15 hours a day, practicing math whenever he can, hoping it will be enough to earn him a spot next fall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT he could become a theoretical physicist, like Einstein or Stephen Hawking, and maybe then he could unlock his own Theory of Everything. • Maybe then he wouldn't be so poor. Maybe then he could impose a new order, clean and rational, on the improper fraction that has been his life.

But now Michael must get to school. He has no teleport, no car (water-powered or otherwise), no driver's license, little or no navigational aptitude, and, at 7:18 on a Thursday morning in September, very little time.

He dials a number, sending invisible waves through the air, and 1.9 miles away a cell phone rings.

"Hello?" says Kim Woolfenden, head of Middleton's math department, standing in a classroom lined with plush tigers. Everyone calls her Miss Wolf.

"My bus didn't come," Michael says, "and my dad won't drive me."

"Okay, Michael," says Miss Wolf. Married with no children of her own, she takes the tone of a long-suffering mother. "I'll come and get you.

"Make a right on 12th," she says, "and be walking on Lake.

"Remember how I told you."

In the hallway she sees Chris Lawyer, another math teacher.

"We're going to get Michael," she says.

Mr. Lawyer covers his face with both hands.

My family was homeless for about six months, living off of relatives and friends, only to eventually be driven out of each place. At one point I remember moving into a motel in a single room with only two beds, we had to hide my little sister because only four people were allowed in the room.

— Michael Rodeman, college application essay, Sept. 30, 2008

Miss Wolf fires up her silver pickup truck and drives south on 22nd Street.

"There's no common sense," she says. "When he goes home, he goes in his room, he hides and he reads his books."

There's Michael on the sidewalk: waving, running, hair a tangled black forest. He is 17, with a scraggly mustache and sideburns, black T-shirt, carpenter jeans, black Nike Air sneakers that Mr. Lawyer bought him when his old ones wore out, glasses that Miss Wolf bought him to replace a pair that somebody sat on.

He gets in.

"You're really sweaty!" Miss Wolf says. "Did you run?"

"Yeah," he says.

"You old coot," she says.

Pop quiz. Geography.

"Which way am I going?"

"East?" he says.

"North, Michael. North."

My father managed to find an elderly couple in possession of an old RV that couldn't run. They told him that he could have it if he could fix it up and get it out of their yard. Being a former mechanic, my father was quick to agree. After he fixed the RV he struck up a living agreement with a very old good friend of his, we were going to live in his friend's backyard in the RV.

Michael's wish to attend MIT can best be explained with a short list of things its graduates have done: flown to the moon, grown artificial skin, isolated quarks, written unbreakable codes, built a laser that fires atoms, invented the world's most precise ruler, launched the world's first acrobatic robotic bird, created the first self-replicating synthetic molecule, developed a robot to guide patients through physical therapy, designed a microchip that can release chemicals on demand and might one day serve as an ingestible drugstore. And so on.

Calculus class, 8:35 a.m.

Michael punches the keys on his TI-89 Titanium calculator and writes the results with a mechanical pencil. His textbook describes a Cartesian equation called the Devil's Curve.

"Don't look in the book," says the teacher, Greg Bradford, who once bought Christmas presents for Michael's entire family. "It just gives it away."

Mr. Bradford has never seen a math student with Michael's combination of drive and intelligence. He is sure Michael will succeed if given the chance.

9:15. Time for Mr. Bradford's famous Pledge of Allegiance.

"ALL RIGHT, AMERICA," says Mr. Bradford, a retired Navy commander, opening the classroom door so the pledge will carry through the halls.

We pledge allegiance to the United States of America . . .

America, land of opportunity, where you can be anything if you work hard enough, especially if you have money. A recent report by the Century Foundation found that in the nation's top-ranked colleges and universities, only 3 percent of students came from the bottom fourth of the socioeconomic scale.

"God bless America!" Mr. Bradford says, and the bell rings.

My mother was notoriously known to everyone who knew her for her extreme asthma. My father had to look after her constantly. We lived off of money received from the government every month for my mother's medicine and my brother's learning disability. Instead of purchasing her medicine she needed, my mother bought food to feed us everyday.

Lunch period now, with English and physics behind him, but Michael does not head for the lunchroom, even though he's eligible to eat for free. He swears he's not hungry. He walks to the guidance office to talk about college.

"The main thing, Michael, is getting those applications in early," says his guidance counselor, ShawnRee Miller. "Early, early, early."

Michael has applied to MIT and several other prestigious schools through Questbridge, a free college-matching service for promising low-income students. He will learn of MIT's decision sometime between December and March.

Michael has memorized pi to 46 decimal places. Now another set of numbers will help determine the course of his life.

780: His score on the math portion of the SAT. Nearly perfect.

570: His score on the reading portion of the SAT. Closer to average. This worries him, especially because only 1 in 8 applicants is offered admission to MIT.

4.84: His weighted grade-point average, which sounds pretty good on a 4.0 scale, but Hillsborough County students can raise their averages above perfect by taking advanced-placement classes.

Therefore, 30th is his class rank, among 287 seniors.

One good way to raise your GPA is to take extra classes online, which is easy if you can go home to a computer with Internet access. Michael cannot. He says it was cut off because his father couldn't pay the bill.

In the midst of this, I joined Mu Alpha Theta, the math team at my school and placed 8th in the Geometry division at the County Math Bowl. My mother was very proud of me and ecstatic about Mu Alpha Theta. Every Monday at 5pm my parents would pick me up from math practice.

Around a week before we were about to move into the RV, Monday, January 10, 2007, to be exact, my parents and siblings were on their way to pick me up from math practice with my mother in the driver's seat. It was around 4:30pm when it happened.

Michael stands at the whiteboard, black marker in hand, peering toward infinity.

To his right, holding a graphing calculator, is Salim Hyder, his best friend. Mr. Lawyer says that among the 1,350 students at Middleton, Michael and Salim are two of the three Super Huge Brains.

It's 3:30 p.m., half an hour after the end of the school day, when most students have fled to freedom. Michael stays at the whiteboard. Here, all mistakes can be wiped away.

Michael and Salim are working on a problem involving an infinite series, wherein numbers march on, always diminishing, each step toward zero shorter than the last.

"Dude," says a kid sitting at a desk. "That thing'll go on for infinity. You know that, right?"

Michael barely turns around.

"Yes, I know," he says.

The kid at the desk is Wendy Duveyonne. He's 16 and wants to be a math major. He has a question for Mr. Lawyer.

"What's so special about Michael?"

"Well," Mr. Lawyer says, "he's pretty smart."

"Is he smarter than you?"

"Maybe," Mr. Lawyer says.

Michael announces the solution: 225 over 16.

Salim checks the time.

"Sixteen minutes and 12 seconds!" Salim says, high-fiving Michael with the sound of a rifle crack.

"Yesssss," Michael says.

My mother suddenly fell back while driving. My father reached over and slammed the vehicle into park on the highway. He got out and ran over to her and started to give her air. It was futile, she died instantly. She was rushed to the nearby hospital, the doctors unsuccessful in attempts to bring her back. The doctors said she died from stress build up, from not having a home for her children and that there wasn't anything that my father could have done.

Michael's father is Thomas Rodeman, a motorcycle enthusiast with a girlfriend and an 8-ball tattoo. He told Michael he would not be interviewed for this story, and when Michael asked why he said because he said so. But he did sign the permission slip letting a reporter follow Michael around school, and, in an interview last year, he said this about his family: "We have a lot of love. We just don't have a lot of money."

It's 4 p.m. on parent-teacher conference day. Michael is not expecting him.

"He came once, when my mom was alive," Michael says.

Mr. Rodeman is most likely at work now.

"I know what his title is," Michael says. "He's a sprayer. He sprays something onto something."

Michael walks behind Salim and Salim's mother toward the physics classroom. He usually follows Salim on conference nights because he has no conferences of his own.

Michael's family recently moved from Seffner to Tampa so he could be closer to school. He likes his new house.

"They're not allowed to smoke in it anymore," Michael says. "I have an actual bed."

Salim and his mother go into the classroom to meet the teacher. Michael stands in the hall, talking about string theory and black holes.

"I'm taking chemistry to get a head start on making efficient solar panels," he says. "It'd be cool to do it by myself, but I'll probably be part of an interdisciplinary team that does it. I'll get one-tenth of the credit."

He touches his throat.

"I'm going to go get some water. I think one of the reasons I don't get hungry is I drink a lot of water."

The physics teacher leans out of his classroom.

"Are you next?" he asks.

"I'm not next," Michael says, and then resumes his discussion.

"When my mom was still alive, I told her about my car-that-runs-on-water idea," he says. "She told me the oil tycoons would assassinate me. And I really think they would."

I was in shock from this. My grades started to suffer as a result. But I was determined not to let this stand in my way. As a consequence, I turned to mathematics as my coping tool. I devoted my entire being to math. I constantly did it all the time. The more math I did, the more I liked it. My interest in math grew "exponentially" after my mother's death. I promised myself I would get as many math trophies as I could and dedicate them to her. Now I have dedicated over thirty-five trophies.

Last year, before the state Mu Alpha Theta math competition in Orlando, Mr. Lawyer asked Michael if he had a suit.

No, Michael said.

Mr. Lawyer took Michael shopping. After the competition, Michael walked onstage to collect his five trophies wearing a new black, two-button suit with a burgundy dress shirt and shiny black shoes.

Over spring break, Mr. Lawyer took Michael on a 3,000-mile road trip to Georgia Tech, his alma mater, and MIT, with its magnet lab and superconductors. One day they were ordering lunch at a quick-serve Mexican place: Mr. Laywer just ahead of Michael in line, paying for lunch. Mr. Lawyer looked back and saw Michael off to the side, adrift from the line, a puzzled look on his face.

Mr. Lawyer put down his own food and walked Michael through the line, step by step.

He wonders who will do that when he's not there. He wonders how Michael will survive without Mr. Bradford to drive him home, Miss Wolf to buy him glasses, his grownup friend Bob to take him to church, Salim to give him potato chips and high-fives.

Outside the school, the sky has turned from blue to purple to black. Man and boy walk into Miss Wolf's classroom. Michael has dark smudges on his face, like a miner returning from the depths.

"I think you have marker all over your face," Miss Wolf says.

Mr. Lawyer looks at Miss Wolf.

"You going to be here awhile?" he asks. "You want me to go get food?"

Michael turns his head.

"Food?" he says. "Food?"

The teachers strike a deal. Miss Wolf brought Michael to school; Mr. Lawyer will drive him home.

"Get your stuff," he says, and they go, stopping first at Subway, where Michael devours a foot-long Subway Club with Dr Pepper and Harvest Cheddar SunChips. It's 8 p.m. This is his first meal of the day.

Thomas Lake can be reached at

A math student's uncommon equation 10/17/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 29, 2008 11:08am]
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