First Person - Stephen Stafford, 13-year-old Morehouse sophomore

‘Potential doesn’t have a limit. It’s like a rainbow. You can constantly keep chasing it, and you will never get to it.’

While most of his peers slog through seventh grade, Stephen Stafford, 13, earns credits toward his pre-med, computer science and mathematics degrees at Morehouse College. The wide-smiling, fast-talking, classical piano-playing Lithonia resident has been labeled a “prodigy” (a term he doesn’t really like), has spoken at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and has fielded private-sector job offers – which he politely declined. CL’s interview with Stafford was cut short because he had to meet with Jermaine Dupri about filming a pilot TV show.

I started learning when I was 2 years old. My sister was 6 and she decided we were going to play school. But she was actually going to teach me things that she learned in school. She was teaching me how to count, how to add. And I caught on to that, and then my mom started teaching me. And when I started kindergarten, I was doing multiplication. And my mother said the other stuff was too easy. I was bored.

I was young at the time and I wasn’t used to repetition. Generally, when I understand something, we move on. With repetition, I’m like, “Why are we doing this when I already know it?” So then my mom decided on home school. I was able to go through the work extremely fast. And after doing that for a while, when I was 11 years old, my mom started having problems teaching me because it was algebra II. And she was having trouble with that. So I went to Morehouse. I didn’t know what the big deal was about going to Morehouse. I just knew it was the next step in my education – and I’m gonna do what my mother tells me to do. My first class there, college algebra, I got a 105 in that. The next class I took was pre-calculus and I got a 99 in that. And that was pretty much the test for whether I could stay at Morehouse. And considering the grades I got there, we decided I’d stay. And I guess you can say the rest is history.

Literature’s been my most difficult subject. It’s not hard for me to learn, it’s just that I usually didn’t like it. I think if I had liked it more I’d have been able to do better. When we were younger, I was assigned Harry Potter and that interested me and I did better with it. And I think that’s a problem with a lot of kids in school. They have the capacity for learning, but if they’re not challenged, they lose interest. Kids my age and younger, they have the most interest in school because they haven’t lost their passion for it yet. Ninety-nine percent of kids start out liking school. But then when they don’t get challenged enough, they get bored. Some high school and middle school kids, they’ve lost it. But in elementary school, they still like it. I taught this 10-year-old kid I tutor how to do basic algebra, and he likes it. He likes math, because I’m showing him the harder parts of it.

I don’t test well. It doesn’t really discourage me. The whole IQ thing, it’s a number. What does a number mean to me? It’s kind of like the video game Call of Duty. You have a rank. I can be ranked level one and be the best guy in the game. These guys could be level 55, and I’m still level one, yet I could still beat them. Same thing with a test. No matter what your IQ is, it’s always about what you do with it rather than I have this number telling me I’m smart. You can be smart without a number. It’s what you do and who you think you are. You’re the only one who can tell someone who you really are. No one knows except for you.

I’ve been hanging out with kids who were older than me for a while. I never really was able to hang out with kids my age. At Morehouse, they treat me like another student. The weird thing is that they like hanging out with me! I don’t get treated any differently than if I were 18. It’s no big deal. At the end of the day, I go home and play video games like a 13-year-old would like to play.

I don’t think I’m any more special than the next kid. I just learned fast because I had the resources to. My mother is the reason I was able to do that. I’m just using my potential. The only way to know it is to use it. I just love moving forward. I really do. When I slow down, I don’t like it. I know I can do better than this, so why slow down?

I plan to go to the Morehouse School of Medicine, focus in obstetrics, specialize in infertility, and graduate when I’m 22. I want to help babies come into the world. I’d also like to develop my own computer operating system. At one point, I will live outside of the country for a few years. And when I come back, I am thinking about moving into the city. I just love the idea of the city, like downtown Atlanta. I went there for the first time the other week. We went to this building and it had a radio station. I was on two radio shows in the same building. And I just loved downtown.

In a way it reminds me of college. Because at Morehouse, you can roam the place. You can explore it. Whereas around Lithonia, you can’t get anywhere without a car. And you don’t want to spend your time exploring inside of a car. You can walk around, go inside a store. If you don’t like it you can just walk out. Whereas in a car you gotta park, get out. It’s a waste of time. That’s what I like about the city. It’s a place where you can be free.

Do I have any heroes? I’m not trying to sound arrogant, but me. I look back and see all the stuff I’ve done. I know, yes, I’ve done a lot. But I can do a whole lot more. I want to live up to my potential. Potential doesn’t have a limit. It’s like a rainbow. You can constantly keep chasing it and you will never get to it. And I know I don’t have any limits as long as I keep trying.