Brandon Gross
For Brandon Gross, 14, being the youngest student at UCI is no big deal. He's used to his classmates asking a lot of questions. Daniel A. Anderson / UCI

In a disheveled dorm room at UC Irvine, Brandon Gross — a freckle-faced college kid in flip-flops and Anteaters ball cap — loads up his backpack and heads out the door to his math class in differential equations. Nothing unusual here, except Brandon is a kid.

A junior who transferred to UCI in January, Brandon is just 14 — six years younger than most of his classmates. He’s constantly moving between parallel worlds of responsible adulthood and playful adolescence.

At times, he sounds wise beyond his years. Enrolled as a quantitative economics major, he says, “I want to own my own business. That’s better than having a job with a boss.”

Other times, Brandon sounds like a typical 14-year-old: “I saw a falcon,” he’ll announce out of the blue. Or he’ll imitate the family dog: “Most dogs don’t actually say ‘bowwow.’ They go, ‘Ruff!’ But he does. ‘Boooowwooow!'”

“Brandon is hyper-aware of things around him,” explains his mother, Melissa Gross, who received her master’s in urban and regional planning from UCI in 1994. “Who pays attention to how authors write about dogs barking versus how they actually sound?”

Ask Brandon what it’s like to be the youngest kid in class, and he shrugs.

“It doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to me, except I get asked a lot of questions,” he says. “Everybody wants to know how old I am, what my major is and what classes I’m taking. I’m used to it.”

He’s been ahead of his peers all his life. By age 1, he was speaking in complete sentences; by age 2, complete paragraphs. He read the first Harry Potter book at age 4 — with complete comprehension, his mother says.

In first grade, the gap between Brandon and his peers widened. Gross remembers asking her son what he did during recess.

“He said he folded his jacket into a pillow and  lay down in front of the classroom door,” she recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, my little boy is depressed!’ That’s when the battle began.”

“Brandon took a lot of teasing. He got bullied badly in elementary school,” she says. “The schools didn’t know what to do with him.”

Parents of gifted children (Brandon ranks in the top one-tenth of 1 percent of his age group on IQ tests, with a score of 150) often question whether it’s better to hold them back with their peers or accelerate them. “Should they be in eighth grade when they’re the age of a sixth-grader?” Gross says.

She and her husband, Jeffrey, a neurosurgeon, consulted with experts on educating gifted children, and learned Brandon would do better if he skipped grades. Held back, they are stifled academically and don’t fit in with peers anyway.

“One program coordinator told me, ‘If you don’t pay attention to their academic needs, you can’t begin to deal with their social and emotional needs,'” Gross says.

Brandon sped through school, starting college at age 11 through the California State University, Los Angeles Early Entrance Program before attending Saddleback College.

When he enrolled at UCI, his parents decided to get him a dorm room, even though he lives at home in Coto de Caza. “He needed a place to hang out between classes,” his mother says.

Brandon spends one or two nights a week at Middle Earth, seldom crossing paths with his roommate, a freshman. The two get along OK, he says. For fun, he joined a campus club for devotees of Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. On weekends, he hangs out at home with his three younger siblings and friends his own age, playing Pokémon and video games.

While his best subject is math, Brandon loves literature. His favorite class is on the Latin and Greek roots of the English language.

“Brandon is a brilliant student, and UCI is committed to making sure his college experience is both intellectually challenging and fun,” says Manuel Gómez, vice chancellor of student affairs.

Brandon’s goal is to attend a top graduate school, but there’s no hurry.

“His academic needs are finally being met,” his mother says. “We just want him to take his time and find something at UCI he’s passionate about. We’re through rushing.”

Originally published in Vol. 1, Iss. 5 of ZotZine