School on fast-forward
14-year-old biochemistry major from Milford is UC's youngest student

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Crystal Clough is the youngest of UC's 24,600 undergraduate students.
(Yoni Pozner photo)

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Crystal Clough is like a lot of other 14-year-olds.

She fights with her sisters, wears black canvas Converse All-Stars (low-cuts), works part-time at a fast-food restaurant and can't wait to get her driver's license.

But not many 14-year-olds are like Crystal.

Crystal is a freshman at the University of Cincinnati and the youngest of the school's 24,600 undergraduate students. She's majoring in biochemistry because “it's cool.”

“I guess I don't see it as anything extraordinary,” she said. “I just happen to go to a bigger school than most teen-agers.”

Crystal, who lives in Milford, is a child prodigy. Prodigies make up between 3 percent and 5 percent of any student group. The challenge they face is handling the social isolation that can come with going to school with older students.

Crystal has learned how to handle the non-academic matters of her education. She was a 10-year-old high school freshman at Covington Latin School before she transferred to Milford High School.

“I used to be bad about judging people by how smart they are,” Crystal said. “When I went to Milford, I had to be friends with all kinds of people. I didn't find them to be like Neanderthal man.”

Crystal's family keeps her grounded, too. She lives at home with her mother, stepfather and sisters, who are 12 and 10. Working at Arby's helps her stay in touch with people her own age. She goes directly from the ivory tower to the cash register on Fridays.

She sometimes reads her UC chemistry book on breaks at the Milford Arby's. “Somebody asked me what language it is,” she said.

Some of her co-workers call her, affectionately, “egghead.”

On the UC campus, she might have lunch with classmates and friends, but she often eats alone.

“I'm not a social person,” she said over lunch — chicken nuggets and a soda — at the McDonald's in Tangeman University Center. “I like to be by myself.”

She accepts missing out on a typical high school social life. And she knows she's missing out in college, too. But she has no regrets.

“I didn't hesitate to move ahead,” she said.

Skipped grades 5, 6, 7
Although Crystal took four years to finish high school, she moved ahead earlier, skipping parts of second and third grades at Boyd E. Smith Elementary School in Milford. She then leapfrogged all of fifth, sixth and seventh grades.

Her IQ is 142. Three of 100 teens score 130; one in 10,000 scores 160, according to the Institute for Gifted Children at Towson State University in Maryland.

At age 9 — 31/2 feet tall — Crystal went to Covington Latin for eighth grade. It was the hardest year for her academically and socially. She had never seen a school locker. She didn't know how to work one.

“The first day of eighth grade was the most embarrassing day of my life,” she said. “I got teased. People would stare at me. It was like, "What, do I have three heads or something?'”

Her mother, Amber Bessom-Klenk, consulted educators and child psychologists before making decisions about Crystal's education.

“There were a few other people in the family who were prodigies,” said Ms. Bessom-Klenk, 33, who is from the Boston area and works as a supervisor at Chesapeake Display and Packaging Co. in West Chester.

“I had a cousin who started Harvard when he was 14, so it didn't seem abnormal to me for her to go college at her age.

“A lot of people think we pushed her. I don't care what people say. She's a prodigy. I have two other kids at home who aren't. She was miserable and bored in school.”

Brain development
Crystal was speaking in complete sentences at 8 months. At 2, she started reading. By age 5, she had read a set of encyclopedias and wanted more books.

“We told her to knock it off,” Ms. Bessom-Klenk said. “We thought it was weird. We were always telling her to go outside and play.”

She talked with neurologists, who explained Crystal's brain development.

“They said the brain goes through growth spurts and craved stimulation,” Ms. Bessom-Klenk said. “As she has gotten older, it has leveled off. When she was younger, like 6, if she didn't get stimulation, she would walk around and pace and act all goofy.”

Crystal is the oldest of the siblings. Amanda, 12, is a seventh-grader at Milford Junior High School. Crystal helps her with her homework. Amanda brags about Crystal to her friends. Kathryn, 10, is in fifth grade at Milford Main Middle School and has dyslexia.

“They fight like normal sisters,” Mom said. “They have no issue with Crystal because she's smart. They see the amount of homework Crystal does. They're glad they don't have to do it.”

Ms. Bessom-Klenk drives Crystal to campus in the morning and picks her up at night. Mom plans on taking art classes next quarter, and her husband is enrolled in business courses, so they see Crystal on campus some days.

She says Crystal is not allowed to take rides with other people or join groups other than Christian ones.

“The hardest thing is to ask permission for everything I do,” said Crystal, who's now 5-foot-4. “At college, I feel totally 18, but I'm not. I would like to drive. The biggest pain in the neck is having (my mom) drive me.”

She is on holiday break now and has put together a pile of books to read; it includes a couple of Roman Empire histories, Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibilityand Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.

Crystal took 13 hours in the first quarter: three in English and five each of physics and organic chemistry at UC's main campus in University Heights. She hasn't received her grades yet but thinks she got a B in biochemistry — CHEM 201.

Higher GPA now
She had 43 credit hours before she enrolled in college. She earned three in an English course at UC's Raymond Walters College in Blue Ash and 40 in advance placement at Milford and Covington Latin high schools. She plans to take four years to get her degree. She plans to attend graduate school, earn a Ph.D. and embark upon a career as a chemistry professor.

Crystal's college GPA — 3.8 — is higher than it was in high school. She graduated from Milford with the Class of 1998 with a 3.2 GPA. Her grades at Latin were her worst. Most of her Milford courses couldn't hold her interest.

“I was lazy,” she said.

More responsible now
Her self-discipline has improved in college. She has learned that professors don't check up on students the way teachers do in high school.

“I procrastinated so much in high school,” she said. “I'm more responsible now.”

In spite of her study habits, she earned a full academic scholarship to UC. It is close to home and offered the most financial aid. Crystal wanted to go to Boston University, but it was too costly. So was Duke University.

At UC, the only time Crystal's age has come up is when she sees a Milford classmate. They know how old she is. Sometimes, UC classmates will talk about cars. Somebody will ask Crystal what she drives. She tells them she can't drive yet.

“Some people will start talking to me like I'm a toddler, using small, simple words like I'm 3 years old,” Crystal said.

She acts anything but 3 in the classroom.

“I would have said she was about 20,” Tom Russo said. He is the teaching assistant in her chemistry course and a former high school teacher who came back to graduate school in his 50s. Crystal was part of his group of nine students who met every Tuesday afternoon at 4.

“She'll bend and scrape to get an answer before asking questions,” Mr. Russo said of Crystal. “She doesn't behave like a 14-year-old. Most 14-year-olds aren't aware there's a world out there, never mind a world of organic chemistry.”

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