Fox crowns the smartest kid in America

"I scored in the top 2 percent of all collegebound high school seniors when I recently took the ACTs."

Published May 11, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

We are a robust nation! Money rains down upon us! But we have a terrible problem. How can we keep ourselves entertained when we are so rich, so fat, so bored?

Well, there's "Gladiator." And, of course, there's always Fox. Animal snuff has been banished from the fourth network, as have marriages between total strangers, but nobody says you can't send child gladiators into the ring, especially during sweeps. And so, on Tuesday, there was the two-hour, Dick Clark-produced "Challenge of the Child Geniuses: Who Is the Smartest Kid in America?" and it garnered the highest Tuesday rating for Fox since "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" aired Feb. 15.

In "Challenge of the Child Geniuses," 50 overachievers between the ages of 10 and 12 competed in a grueling test of high school- and college-level math, science, geography, history and literature, and at the end, there was but one little brain warrior left standing, and he was crowned the Smartest Kid in America. (Although the on-screen credits gave the show's name as "Challenge of the Child Geniuses," Fox juicily retitled it "Battle of the Child Geniuses" for promos and TV listings.)

As a parent, it's hard not to get caught up in that "my kid is smarter than yours" crap. And, as a parent, it was hard not to be both fascinated and repelled by the show. It opened, "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" style, with a parade of kid geniuses, each one taking the microphone to state his or her name, hometown and crowning intellectual achievement, all of which put your kid's mastery of Pokimon Snap to shame: "I'm taking molecular biology at the University of Denver"; "Out of 85,000 participants, I got a perfect score in the Math Olympiad"; "I read 900 books before I was 6 years old"; "I've never made less than an A in my entire life"; "I have an I.Q. of 189." Yes, there was some serious geekdom on display here.

The 50 contestants then answered first-round questions so complicated, host Clark had trouble reading them off his cue cards. Sample first-round question: "The product of which of the following when squared gives the age of our Declaration of Independence in 2001?" (Sample "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" first-round question: "In the children's nursery rhyme, the three little kittens lost their what?")

The pool was eventually narrowed down to 10 top scorers -- nine boys, one girl -- and then to five, and then to two finalists. Eleven-year-old Michael Jezierny ("I scored in the top 2 percent of all collegebound high school seniors when I recently took the ACTs") was a scarily competitive blond boy who looked as if he might reach into his chest and rip out his own heart with his bare hands when he got a question wrong. Twelve-year-old John Hawksley ("I mastered algebra by the age of 6") was a dark-haired boy with a nervously blinking eye. Just as Darva Conger shone with the light of the chosen upon her even before Rick Rockwell got down on his knees to propose, you knew that blond kid had it sewn up. When he answered the winning question ("What the Romans called the country now known as France," a comparative gimme), his family -- Mom, Dad, Sis -- all bounded out and jumped all over him, while his devastated-looking opponent and his mom were quickly ushered off the stage.

Oh, I suppose it's refreshing for TV to applaud kids for their mental prowess for a change; this wasn't the usual freak show of eerie child actors and nymphet songstresses. But, still, isn't there something depressing about seeing a bunch of highly competitive kids blinking back tears on national TV, thrust into yet another competition at their fragile ages? Isn't it sad that their wondrous, innate gifts were reduced to sport, all for network ratings and our voyeuristic pleasure? On second thought, nah, it's good for them to learn you can't always get straight A's. Teach 'em how to be losers like the rest of us.

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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