WESLEY CHAPEL — Axel Martinez sat in the McDonald's booth, joking with friends over drinks and burgers after a day of Advanced Placement exams.
They laughed heartily as they found Stomp-worthy music in their straws and plastic cup covers. They talked about the four forces of physics in the universe, and whether they're connected. They gossiped about friends and the future after graduation.
Silly and science mix easily for Martinez, an 18-year-old Wesley Chapel High senior who's equally happy "being a teenager" as touring a nuclear reactor or quizzing a physicist over string theory.
"Physics for me, it's just beautiful," explained Martinez, who said he looks at paper and sees carbon, the world and sees equations. "It goes from cosmology — the study of our universe — all the way down to the subatomic. It really describes our entire world. … It's elegant."
A few years ago Martinez was a less-than-serious student who spent more time learning magic tricks than the assigned curriculum.
This fall he begins his full ride at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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It took awhile for Martinez to dream big. An elite college education didn't seem to be in the cards.
"Growing up in a low-income family, I didn't think I would be able to go to college," he said.
Some teachers saw he had abilities that needed focusing. They referred him to Take Stock in Children, a public-private partnership that provides mentors and in-state college scholarships to middle and high school students who show promise to succeed but lack financial resources. The program gave him the incentive to work hard.
"The first day I met him, I started asking him what his goals were," recalled Terry Aunchman, Martinez's mentor. "He said, 'I'm going to finish here at Wesley Chapel High School, and then I'm going to go to PHCC to start.' …. The first thing I said to him after getting to know him was, 'I think PHCC is a good start, but you have to aim a little higher.' "
Martinez had all A's in difficult courses during his freshman year, and clear intellect, Aunchman said. He simply needed to see that his dreams could become reality.
That push, reiterated time and again, inspired Martinez to go long.
"He really stressed that I should shoot for the stars," Martinez recalled. "I said I would try to go for my dreams and aspirations."
Physics teacher Charles Banyard could see Martinez's dedication.
"He's probably one of the most educated students of physics that I have had the pleasure of teaching," Banyard said. "It's amazing how much he knows about physics."
He's still a goofy kid, complete with Family Guy references, Banyard said. But he's also an excellent student who will go far, he added.
"I'm just so excited for him," he said. "I just know he's going to have a really good four years."
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Once Martinez really started thinking beyond Florida for college, he got a job at the Kumon Learning Center, helping kids with math. He used his pay to buy a car, so he could work more.
He wanted money to cover application fees, which for MIT were $75.
He completed the forms, essays and tests, had an alumni interview and waited.
At 9:26 p.m. on March 14 — he remembers exactly because the date, potential MIT graduation year and announcement time came out to pi (it's a math thing) — Martinez turned to the university website to see if he was accepted.
He couldn't get past the clogged server, but a friend with his log-in information did. He was in.
"I said, 'Stop joking,' " Martinez recalled. Finally believing it, "I ran around my house, screaming."
Next up was a campus preview for accepted incoming freshmen. He wanted to go, but couldn't afford it.
MIT sent him a plane ticket.
"It was beautiful. I felt at home when I was there," he said.
He made friends, attended classes, spoke about deep physics theory with professors.
"It was amazing," Martinez said. One professor "asked me if I was going to attend MIT. I said, 'Absolutely.' "
He got a full four-year scholarship to go there. He still can't believe he almost didn't apply.
Claudio Martinez, Axel's dad, couldn't be prouder.
"Unfortunately I didn't have the money to put him through school (because) of the higher university costs," he said. "I was wondering if he would have the opportunity."
He praised Take Stock in Children for creating that chance, and his son for pushing even higher.
"I told him he had to aim for the best," he said. "I am ecstatic."
Axel Martinez now looks forward to working in labs, delving into the world of physics at one of the world's top universities. He hopes one day to be the scientist to unlock the "theory of everything" — the still unknown explanation of how all physical phenomena tie together.
So many doors have opened for him. Martinez only wishes that he could open another, for someone else.
He no longer needs the Take Stock in Children scholarship that got him started.
"I wish they would let me decide what I could do with the scholarship. I would give it to one of my friends," he said.
Rules say it will remain in his name until he completes college — just in case. After that, it will go back to the program to help yet another promising young teen.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.