Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.
As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired. You get the picture? You laughing now?
--Alec Baldwin, as real estate hotshot "Blake" in Glengarry Glen Ross
In the summer of 1999, at Washington, D.C.'s Grand Hyatt Hotel, it was never about steak knives for young George Thampy. It was, to paraphrase Alec Baldwin's Blake, about closing.
"ABC. A, Always; B, Be; C, Closing. Always be closing."
To George Thampy, age eleven, this meant nothing short of winning the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, icing older competitors by acing words he may never use in casual conversation. Like Blake, Thampy, as captured in last year's Academy Award-nominated documentary film Spellbound, knew exactly what his personal three-step formula for success was, and between signing autographs for admiring rival competitors, he was more than happy to spell it out.
"One: Trust and believe in Jesus," a squeaky-voiced Thampy pronounces, jabbing his pen professorially at the camera with each syllable.
"Two: Honor your parents."
"And three: Hard work."
George Thampy was supposed to have been one of the eight young "stars" of Spellbound, but he was relegated to secondary billing when his parents forbade the filmmakers access to their Maryland Heights home. Screen time, though, is what you make of it, and Thampy, in approximately three minutes, manages to lodge himself firmly in the moviegoer's craw. Introduced via an ESPN clip in which a commentator taps him as a favorite to win -- mispronouncing his name Thumpy -- he steals the scene.
Unlike most eleven-year-olds, Thampy doesn't do this by being cute. Quite the opposite, in fact. When he's not speaking -- with a pronounced impediment that turns his r's into w's -- or signing autographs, he sits with his back to the camera as his father denounces the United States as a "bankrupt society" in need of "godly values." In all instances, the boy's meticulous navy-blue suit and detached air set him distinctly apart from his rivals. The kid's got gravitas, and the filmmakers -- and his fellow spellers -- know it.
In just three minutes, intentionally or otherwise, George Thampy comes across as equal parts unusual, brilliant, annoying, shy, cocky and fascinating. Unscripted, Thampy carves out the same sort of rare, tiny humdinger role for himself as Glengarry's Alec Baldwin, whose lone, brass-balls-on-the-table scene hijacks the machismo-drenched film from a heavyweight cast that includes Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin and Ed Harris.
Thampy couldn't close on that June day in D.C. He finished tied for third out of 249 national finalists, stumped on the archaic term kirtle (a type of garment; he spelled it "c-u-r-t-l-e"). In the previous year's competition, Thampy had finished fourth. But in 2000, at age twelve, Thampy skipped the steak knives and snagged the Eldorado, thus successfully ending a quest for the National Spelling Bee title that his parents say began somewhere in the vicinity of age five.
An instant celebrity, young Thampy got his proverbial fifteen minutes, hitting the Today Show, Good Morning America and the pitcher's mound at Busch Stadium, where he threw out a ceremonial first pitch and got to meet Mark McGwire.
And then this past spring brought Spellbound's wide release. Suddenly the past was present for George Thampy. In a glowing review of the film, Riverfront Times critic Luke Y. Thompson singled out the St. Louisan's brief appearance, noting that the minimalist role was "just as well: With his obnoxious evangelical Christian proselytizing," Thompson wrote, "he'd make for an annoying protagonist."
George's father was incensed and told Thompson so in an e-mail: "It is a shame that people such as you are allowed to write articles in newspapers." A letter to the Riverfront Times from the principal of the school Thampy now attends was likewise withering. "Mr. Thompson chose to refer to George as 'obnoxious' and 'annoying,' although if Mr. Thompson had the privilege of knowing George he would soon learn that George is the very antithesis of those two adjectives," wrote Westminster Christian Academy principal James Drexler.
"I wonder, though, who is truly obnoxious," Drexler concluded, "one who takes a consistent stand for his faith, or an adult who attacks a fifteen-year-old for his beliefs!"
And so St. Louisans were exposed to a funhouse-mirror version of George Thampy -- the teenager melded with the pint-sized provocateur on celluloid.
Of the film, George says only that he thought it was "pretty good." But, from the look on his face when he says this, you can tell he's been there, done that and considers Spellbound to have all the significance of a buried time capsule. What he is now -- and what he is going to be -- is what interests him.
Were it not for the simultaneous entrance of his mild-mannered mother, Bina, the George Thampy who strides into the St. Louis County Public Library's Thornhill Branch would be virtually unrecognizable from the spindly Spellbound boy of 1999. Gone is the aloof, Scripture-centered nerd. In his stead is a lanky six-footer with a deepening voice who is as sure of himself as he is about his bedrock Christian beliefs.
As he succinctly expressed in the film, George Thampy's life belongs to Jesus. But he has grown up enough to realize that not everyone's does -- and that's okay by him.
"In some ways I'm totally different, in some ways I'm the same," he says, seated under his mother's supervisory gaze at a table in the children's section. "I've come to understand the world from a mature point of view, but I still believe in one God and that ethics and morality are really important."
After he successfully spelled emmetropia -- the refractive condition of the eye in which rays of light are focused upon the retina -- en route to victory in the 2000 National Bee, Thampy offered the Post-Dispatch the following explanation for his ability to negotiate the word: "I prayed and God gave me that. God told me the correct spelling."
Three years later, Thampy is a little more circumspect about the role of prayer. "You pray more, you're going to be smarter?" he asks rhetorically. "No."
By age sixteen, most boys have knocked the "girls are gross" hormonal knuckleball into the gap and are rounding second base. This isn't the case with Thampy. "Part of me wants to say they still have cooties, part of me wants to be mature," he reflects. "There's a time in your life when you have a partner -- and I'm not ready to go down that road."
The Thampys came to the United States in 1983 and have lived in St. Louis for eleven years now. George, the third of seven children who range in age from eight to nineteen, was born in Houston, where Bina and her husband, an endocrinologist and physician (also named George), decided to homeschool their children for safety reasons. While Bina served as the children's primary instructor, the couple balanced each other out in terms of left and right brain power, with Dr. Thampy's background in science and math countering Bina's advanced liberal-arts degrees.
The elder George Thampy, an avid fisherman who'd love to cast lines for salmon in Alaska if he only had the time, says he "used to be a good speller." His offspring have taken that gene and run with it; George's younger sister Mallika and older brother Eapen also competed in the National Spelling Bee.
Eapen, now a freshman at the University of Missouri, is the only Thampy child to have attended public school (he graduated from Parkway North). George, Laila and Mallika attend Westminster Christian Academy in Creve Coeur, as they each have since ninth grade, after being homeschooled until that point. While the decision was driven by sheer numbers -- attempting to homeschool all the kids at this time would be unfair to teacher and students alike -- Bina Thampy seems satisfied with the 27-year-old parochial school, which houses 800-plus students in grades seven through twelve and counts among its alumni Michael Gerson, George W. Bush's chief speechwriter.
While his classmates' summers consist of basketball camps and bagging groceries at Dierbergs, George Thampy attended back-to-back three-week workshops for exceptional students at the Universities of Missouri and Kansas and works as a medical assistant at his father's practice at St. Anthony's Medical Center in south county.
Aside from his father, George is the only male working in the endocrinology office on a busy Friday. He has just returned from one of the aforementioned academic forays, and his female co-workers -- including his sister Laila -- are seizing upon every opportunity to tease him about his absence. The human flow in Dr. Thampy's office on this day is best described as "organized chaos." Though the continual comings and goings would seem to indicate confusion, it's evident from the lack of chatter and the looks of assuredness that every pace has its purpose. Insulin vendor Tammy Vlcek observes that this is possible because Dr. Thampy "can do it all." Most comparable endocrinology offices require eight nurses, Vlcek imparts, while Dr. Thampy requires just one nurse and a cast of task-specific role players like George and Laila.
When a five-minute window between patients presents itself, father and son sit down to open the mail and take a few bites of their takeout deli sandwiches. Although the son is the more outgoing of the two, the gentlemen Thampy are essentially physical and intellectual doppelgängers. It comes as no surprise, then, when young George says that he wants to go into medicine, listing Washington University and Harvard as frontrunners in his undergrad sweepstakes. Odds are, though, with the amount of post-baccalaureate schooling the profession requires, young George will play a game of campus hopscotch similar to that of his father, who completed a fellowship at Wash. U. and holds advanced degrees from Kent State and St. Louis University.
Each year some nine million schoolchildren compete in spelling bees nationwide in the hope of landing one of the 250 -- give or take a couple -- annual slots in the 76-year-old Scripps Howard competition. The event has grown so popular that ESPN broadcasts the final round live each year. But unlike baseball, in the bee it's one strike and you're out. Forget that second n in your millennium, partner, and it's better luck next year.
Both young George Thampy and Spellbound director/producer Jeff Blitz have been obsessed with the Scripps Howard bee since the mid-1990s. That was about the time when Carolyn Andrews' son, Ned, took home the first-place trophy and the $10,000 cash prize. Andrews has remained active with the bee by managing its Web site; she's now one of the event's three word-list managers.
"Georgie wrote to me when he was seven years old," recalls Andrews, speaking from her home outside Knoxville. "He'd seen my son and he wrote, 'I want to hold the big trophy one day.' George was the first visitor to our Web site. I'd posted a word puzzle at midnight. By the next morning, he had posted an answer."
Blitz was watching the ESPN telecast of the 1998 Bee, in which Thampy finished fourth at the age of ten. To put this in perspective: Out of 251 contestants in 2003, only 14 were age ten or under. (The maximum age is fifteen, and no speller who has completed eighth grade is allowed to compete.) Hence, when Blitz set out to identify prospective subjects for Spellbound, Thampy was tops on his list.
Bina and Dr. Thampy initially agreed to allow their son be profiled for the film, which follows the bee-bound lives of eight young spellers with geographic, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds that could hardly represent a more intriguing cross-section of America: The Spellbound viewer is first introduced to bee finalist Angela Arenivar, a self-driven rural Texan whose ranch-hand father speaks no English and crossed the Mexican border illegally to give his family a shot at the American Dream. On the other end of the cultural spectrum sits well-heeled New Englander Emily Stagg, an avid equestrienne whose family's greatest debate is whether to bring their au pair to the nationals. Rounding out the cast is an African-American girl from inner-city D.C.; a hulking shy guy from Rolla; a barkeep's daughter from industrial Pennsylvania; a hypercharged geek from New Jersey prone to answering the filmmakers' questions in "robot voice"; and two Indian kids, one of whom comes with a father who more than fulfills the obligatory role of horrifying parental taskmaster. The other, Nupur Lala of Tampa, eventually wins the competition.
The cumulative effect of the film is, well, spellbinding, in no small part owing to the fact that the families of the aforementioned eight granted Blitz and his filmmaking team virtually unfettered access into their lives. Not so the Thampys.
"The Thampy family was far more restrictive than other families," Blitz recalls. "The Thampys allowed us to come to church with them one day and to interview the parents at a park the next day. But that, until the National Bee, was the extent of it. I had no opportunity to see the family at home, to sit down with Georgie and discuss his life, his studies, his siblings and his spelling. I'm not really sure why this was, but if I had to guess I'd say it was because they don't watch television and didn't ever really understand what Spellbound aimed to be."
Whatever the rationale, the media reticence persists more than four years later. While the Thampys granted the Riverfront Times ample access to their son in a wide range of settings, they drew the line at the front door of their five-bedroom home on Driftwood Lane.
"We have a schedule here," Bina Thampy says simply. "It would be very disruptive to everyone doing what they're supposed to be doing."
Spoken like a true teacher -- which makes perfect sense when you consider that the Thampy abode also serves as classroom, playground and school administration office.
A mere week before George Thampy took home the big trophy in the National Spelling Bee, he finished second in the National Geographic Bee, netting a $15,000 scholarship to the college of his choice. Though the spelling bee has more sex appeal, some would argue that its geography counterpart (sponsored by National Geographic and also held in the nation's capital) is at least as challenging.
"The geography bee encompasses a whole range of knowledge," Carolyn Andrews explains. "You've got your physical geography, cultural geography -- it's a fantastic competition. It requires a special mind to be able to assimilate all the information."
Andrews' son, Ned, has such a mind, and he attempted a similar double in 1994. He tied for 11th in the geography bee the week before winning the Scripps Howard competition. The following year, ineligible for the spelling bee (once you win, you can't compete again), Ned focused squarely on geography and improved to fifth place.
Impressive, to be sure, but Thampy's feat was singular. Most spelling bee competitors eat, sleep and drink words in the months leading up to the Scripps Howard tourney. Thampy, meanwhile, was able to efficiently cocktail knowledge of decidedly different subject matters in advance of two big-time competitions that took place eight days apart. These things simply aren't supposed to happen. Unless, of course, they do.
"You won't often find that sort of dexterity," Andrews understates.
Reckons Thampy: "You can't just be good at one thing. Everybody should have a really wide base."
A broader base is what Thampy is seeking as he and a group of two dozen whiz-kid peers from the heartland tromp past Phog Allen Field House on a chafing July day in Lawrence, Kansas. What would otherwise be a sleepy summer pace on the University of Kansas campus has received an injection of glitterati with the weekend dedication of the Dole Institute of Politics, an edifice that features what is said to be the world's largest stained-glass American flag. The building's namesake, ex-Senator Bob Dole, has come to town to observe the dedication in person.
Thampy has trekked to Lawrence to attend a prestigious three-week academic workshop for budding intellectuals known simply as TIP (Talent Identification Program). While the program is held in KU buildings, it is run by Duke University -- an intriguing juxtaposition in light of the two schools' longstanding rivalry in men's basketball. Here George is part of an intensive curriculum cluster dubbed "Investigations to Physics." Every weekday morning for three weeks, he joins a battalion of similarly gifted kids shepherded around campus by Columbia University graduate and TIP teaching assistant Wendy Yip.
Before she arrived for the Lawrence TIP session, Yip had not heard of George Thampy. Upon touchdown, however, one of Yip's fellow TA's recognized George's name on her roster and remarked that he'd competed against him a few years back at the Scripps Howard bee. And when Yip and some residential counselors wandered downtown to catch a flick, Spellbound was the featured fare. For Wendy Yip, George Thampy is ubiquitous in Lawrence.
"My friends were impressed when I told them he was my student," says Yip, who plans to continue her studies overseas, at the University of Cambridge.
On the walk to class, a diminutive girl from Greenville, South Carolina, is chatting up Thampy. It's fairly evident that she has a crush on the Maryland Heights prodigy. It's difficult to tell whether the feeling is mutual, though Thampy converses politely about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen -- "my kind of movie," he says, because of "all the literary figures."
Upon reaching his classroom on the second floor of Malott Hall, Thampy holds the door open for sixteen-year-old Georgia resident Emilie Hermann, who thanks him loudly and sincerely for his chivalry. An hour later, in front of the class and TIP physics instructor Oather Strawderman, Hermann delivers a polished oral presentation on quantum foam, a "relatively new theory that can help explain the earliest moments of the Big Bang and is at odds with Einstein's theory of relativity," the young Atlantan notes.
Just the day before, Thampy had made his presentation to the class. The topic: Einstein's theory of relativity. Despite the seemingly contradictory nature of Hermann's spiel, the question Thampy poses to his colleague is hardly combative.
"I once read a book -- Timeline, by Michael Crichton -- where a man travels back into time through wormholes," Thampy prefaces. "How would you explain that?"
"I read it, too, and the way he described quantum foam was pretty accurate," replies Hermann. "If you could freeze time at that second and stuff exotic matter into [the wormhole], who knows what could happen?"
Right. We all remember that stuff from high school. (Not.)
After oral presentations, Yip's cluster takes a breather to play Frisbee outside. The Frisbee circle consists of a half-dozen kids, joined occasionally by the likes of Thampy. George is not a graceful athlete, yet he competently cradles the first disc thrown in his direction, and his return fire is more or less on target. The second time, however, is not the charm, as George flubs the catch and the yellow disc falls to the ground. To Thampy, such a motor-skills shortcoming is trivial: In the grand scheme of things, there's only so much that can be accomplished in the Frisbee-tossing arena, unless you're a show dog on Letterman.
After lunch the group gathers for a guest lecture on solar neutrinos from KU professor Bruce Twarog. Save for his hippie hairdo, Twarog looks and sounds faintly like a Midwesternized Campbell Scott, actor son of George C. Twarog ditches the podium and darts around the front of the room and the first few rows of students, peppering his lecture with animated, off-the-cuff quips.
"What they expect is a podium lecture -- relatively dry," explains Twarog, whose son, Nat, is a TIP alum who'll be starting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall. "The hard part is to try and get kids engaged on their own, rather than what they've heard in class. Textbooks are probably the worst offender when it comes to education, because they're so prepackaged. The textbook gives you questions rephrased from the textbook. So kids focus on keywords. The biggest challenge is getting students to think through problems themselves and arrive at an answer that they haven't been told before."
Twarog's ideal student is one who is driven not by textbook cues but instead by "intrinsic motivation," a catchphrase uttered by Strawderman in his lab as he chastises some students for half-assing their oral presentations. "Intrinsic motivation -- the presentations you give will be only as good as you want them to be," he says, encapsulating the essence of the term. "TIP is about wanting to learn."
TIP isn't the only place where the concept of intrinsic motivation is touted early and often. Another prominent source of such vernacular is the homeschooling movement.
Brian Ray, president of the Salem, Oregon-based National Home Education Research Institute, is familiar with George Thampy.
"Most people I've run into in homeschooling have heard the name," Ray says. "Geography, spelling, homeschooling -- they're like, 'Oh yeah, I wouldn't want to meet that guy in an academic alley.' You're bound to have children like that from the homeschool world. Best I can see based on my research is that there are a disproportionately high number of homeschool graduates who are going to win things."
If the Scripps Howard Spelling Bee is any indication, Ray has a point. In the 2000 tilt, for instance, homeschoolers took first, second and third places. Why do homeschoolers thrive in such a cutthroat environment? Intrinsic motivation, says Tamra Orr, a resident of Portland, Oregon, who has authored several homeschool books.
"Whatever [homeschoolers] are really interested in, they pursue it with such passion, whatever it may be," says Orr, a former community college English teacher who recently delivered a guest lecture on homeschooling at the St. Louis Public Library's Schlafly Branch in the Central West End. "It's not a drill, it's not agony, it's not something I'm going to get tested on every day. It's something I'm interested in, so I'm going to get good at it."
Orr says that fifteen years ago, when she'd talk about homeschooling, "Nobody had any idea what I was talking about."
Today, though, the homeschooling movement is a political and educational force to be reckoned with. State laws vary and not all homeschoolers are required to register with government entities, but most estimates put the number of homeschoolers at between 1.5 million and 2 million nationwide, and growing at a steady rate of 20 percent per year.
In Missouri there are an estimated 30,000 homeschool students. While state law requires homeschool parent-teachers to maintain records of their children's educational machinations and mandates instruction in the fields of reading, math, social studies, language arts and science, it does not require parents to submit said records to any government entity, nor does it require the parent-teachers to have achieved any particular level of formal educational training themselves. And if a homeschool purports to subscribe to a particular strain of religious doctrine, it is essentially exempt from any oversight whatsoever.
"That is incredibly loose," says Rob Reich, author of Bridging Liberalism and Multiculturalism in American Education. Reich, an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, points to New York state's stringent monitoring of homeschools as a polar opposite example.
The most common criticism of homeschooling is that it fundamentally restricts a child's exposure to kids from diverse backgrounds and retards the student's worldview. As depicted in Spellbound, the awkward eleven-year-old Thampy could be a poster boy for this argument. But as the Internet has taken flight, so too have homeschool networks and support groups, allowing homeschools to organize joint excursions outside the home environment -- a phenomenon Orr says exposes the homeschool student to an even more diverse array of individuals than he would encounter in a traditional educational setting.
"Unless you have a family who is extremely focused on protecting children from the world -- which tends to be more Christian fundamentalist families -- socializing is never a problem with homeschoolers," argues Orr. "Most of our kids are in Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, 4-H, etc. Instead of spending your day around 30 twelve-year-olds, you're out in the real world talking to five-year-olds and fifty-year-olds. For people who've never met homeschooled kids, it can be a little shocking, because they don't have the eyes-down, Hello-Mr.-Jones philosophy. They're more likely to look you in the eye and say, 'Hi, my name is George.'"
But Stanford's Reich is concerned by the balance of influence over a child in a homeschool environment. Reich, who in August 2001 presented to the American Political Science Association a paper on homeschooling that garnered national attention from advocates and foes alike, argues that every child has a right to autonomy -- something that can be irrevocably breached when parents maintain sole jurisdiction over education. In his paper, Reich urges states to play an engaged, watchdog role by instituting sensible regulations and standardized-test benchmarks.
What Reich thought to be a moderate position was not well received among staunch homeschool advocates. Two years after his paper was published, the Stanford prof still finds himself inundated with acerbic e-mails.
"My paper is mainly an effort to say what the moral boundaries of parental authority are," says Reich. "I go out of my way to say that homeschooling should be legal. I suggest some regulations. I view the position as a moderate position. I had no idea the paper would be received so widely and touch such raw nerves. Now that I know more about the homeschool community, it doesn't surprise me."
What Reich knows now is that the homeschool community is overwhelmingly Christian -- 75 percent Christian, by Brian Ray's estimate -- and highly organized. To these folks, the threat of government involvement smacks of interference and is to be avoided at any cost.
"All education, regardless of whether it's in public school, private school or homeschool, is value-laden," asserts Ray, a former professor of education at Seattle Pacific University. "The question then arises: Who has primary authority over values and worldview taught to children? And again, you've only got a few choices: the family or the state."
Reich and his ilk come down on the side of the state, Ray argues, while people like James Dobson, founder of the arch-conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, feel that public schools are diverting kids away from what their parents teach them. "If you go back to the beginnings of the public school system as we know it today -- the mid- to late 1800s -- there was a tremendous debate over whether the state should be involved in collecting taxes and running schools," Ray notes. "It's not a new debate at all."
The old debate gets another dusting-off this month in Harper's, which features a scathing critique of modern public schooling by a former New York state teacher of the year named John Taylor Gatto. "Do we really need school? I don't mean education, just forced schooling: six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for twelve years," Gatto writes. "Is this deadly routine really necessary? And if so, for what? Don't hide behind reading, writing, and arithmetic as a rationale, because 2 million happy homeschoolers have surely put that banal justification to rest. Even if they hadn't, a considerable number of well-known Americans never went through the twelve-year wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln? Someone taught them, to be sure, but they were not products of a school system, and not one of them was ever 'graduated' from a secondary school."
Counters Reich: "Gatto's been writing the same thing for fifteen years now. Sure, it's a nice polemic. But a guide to public policy? What exactly is he proposing? That we dismantle compulsory attendance laws and expect everyone to homeschool, or to allow children to direct their own schooling?"
In the conclusion of his paper, Reich touches on the notion of how homeschooling and public schooling might coexist. "There are a host of open questions about the consequences of homeschool-public school partnerships," he writes. "But to the extent that bringing children back within a campus-based school environment conduces to meeting the interest of the state and the child in education -- especially to the extent that it brings children into social and intellectual contact with other children of diverse backgrounds -- such partnerships should not be summarily dismissed or discouraged."
Which, in a roundabout way, brings the discussion back to George Thampy. "One of the real problems with homeschooling is that you're lost in terms of what goes on," Reich says. "So it's a good thing from a public-policy standpoint to lure people back into private or public schooling. The fact that Thampy returned to school is a positive development."
It's the second day of school in Casandra Clausen's Spanish class at Westminster Christian. Today's assignment is totally unrelated to learning a foreign language: Each student had to bring to class a brown paper bag containing personal items that symbolize important elements of his life.
Most kids pull out photographs of their families. Some pull out knee pads and tickets to baseball games, symbolizing their love of sport. One displays a "Sore Loserman" campaign pin, commemorating the defeat of the Gore-Lieberman ticket in 2000. Seated in the back of the room next to his jazz-enthusiast buddy Dan Serber, George Thampy has drawn the next-to-last straw for this early-morning show-and-tell. Instead of a paper bag, Thampy whips out a black thermal cloth lunch bag. The items he has brought: a squeeze packet of horseradish, a pair of socks, a pump bottle of hand soap and two chess pieces, a king and queen.
"Believe it or not, these are some of the most important items I have," says George, his smirk evolving into a toothy smile.
The class erupts with laughter at a most unconventional class clown. In the cauldron of sociological tumult that is high school, there's a fine line between full-throttle dork and the brilliantly quirky kid everyone loves. It is evident that Thampy has landed safely in the latter category at Westminster. It certainly didn't hurt that everyone knew his name before he ever set foot in the building.
"He came in as a phenom," admissions director Florence Lewis recalls. "So he wasn't having any trouble getting recognized in the halls."
"Most people, that's the first thing they know about him," echoes Serber, who like Thampy has been permitted to navigate Clausen's Spanish class at an accelerated pace. "He's gotten well accustomed. People accepted him into groups."
Having known Thampy through church since fifth grade, classmate Philip Pohlman is in a unique position to comment on the social evolution of his friend. In his estimation, Thampy has made great gains socially since coming in from the homeschool hinterlands.
"He's always been the smart one," says Pohlman. "He used to be more shy; now he's more open. He's met people from different backgrounds."
Not surprisingly, Thampy, who's taking five advanced-placement classes, thrives in Westminster's demanding academic arena.
"Mom did a wonderful job," in the estimation of ancient-history teacher Thom Johnston, who also coaches Thampy on the school's chess team. "These [Thampy] kids have an intellectual curiosity that is phenomenal. At the same time, they already have a lot of content. For instance, George loves the Punic Wars. One day a student asked where Carthage would be today. I didn't know, so I asked George. He said Tunisia, and he was right."
Says upper-school principal James Drexler: "He was one of the ones who's gotten it out there that homeschoolers aren't just wacky. At school, he's like a hero."
On the second day of school, huddled at a cafeteria table with Laila Thampy and a group of friends, Drexler's hero is asked what his views are on the theories of evolution and the Big Bang -- scientifically grounded notions that carried the day back in Lawrence.
"I was surprised at the amount of professors in Lawrence who passed off science as accepted belief," Thampy replies. "Textbooks are something somebody believes. Everybody has faith in something, whether you're a scientist, a priest or a construction worker. There are multiple possibilities."
Another student might leave it at that and get back to his peanut butter and jelly. But not this Eldorado winner, who wants to continue the conversation in the hallway, beyond the distractions of the lunchroom. "Too many scientists elevate science to religion," Thampy contends. "That's the fallacy. Science is a method. If you want the most accurate account of the universe's origin, read Genesis I. But that's just my belief. A lot of people believe God guided evolution. And I respect their beliefs."
Just then a blonde walks by.
"Hi, George," she says, unprovoked.
Thampy answers with a wave and a smile. Not the flirtatious smile of a stone mack, but one of polite warmth. For the six-foot teenager leaning against the corridor wall, there's still the mysteries of the universe to tend to. And in that milieu, George Thampy is the most popular kid in school.
Correction published 9/17/03:
In the original version of this story, we gave spelling bee champ Ned Andrews and his mother, Carolyn, the wrong last name. The above version reflects the corrected text.