Small Wonder

updated 10/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

MICHAEL KEARNEY ISN'T ONE OF those recent college grads who's thrilled to be done with tedious lectures, term papers and finals. "Higher learning is a lot of fun," says Kearney, who holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology. "But sometimes college was tough because people kept calling me Doogie Howser. I didn't like that."

But who could blame his classmates? Kearney is not only frighteningly smart, with an IQ that exceeds 200; he is also only 10 years old. Last June he graduated with honors and a 3.6 grade-point average from the University of South Alabama. In so doing, he became the youngest college graduate in American history—his third Guinness Book of Records title. (He already held the records for youngest high school graduate and youngest college student.) Now, when most kids his age are starting fifth grade, Kearney is taking a well-deserved break—majoring in video games, television and playing with friends his own age. "I've had seven years of formal schooling, four of them in college," says Michael, who often sounds like an adult trapped in a pre-teen body. "I could use some time off."

In November, some of that time will be spent in Japan during a two-week tour for The Accidental Genius, a book Michael's parents, Kevin and Cassidy Kearney, have written about raising their boy wonder. (The book, available only in Japanese markets, hasn't yet found an American publisher.) Cassidy will accompany Michael on the tour, along with her husband and their other gifted child, 9-year-old Maeghan, a sixth grader whose own IQ is exceedingly high (her parents won't divulge the exact number). "Having kids like Michael and Maeghan is hectic and tiring," says Cassidy, who drives the children to their schools and often sits in on their homework sessions. "It's physically and emotionally draining."

Michael's head-spinning smarts were apparent before he could walk. He spoke his first words at 4 months. "He'd say, 'What's for dinner?' " recalls Cassidy, 37, a former secretary who now devotes all her time to raising her two kids. At 8 months he began reading product names on television commercials, and "before we knew it," remembers Kevin, 40, formerly a civilian engineer for the Navy, "he could spell with 100 percent accuracy, and his command of English soon exceeded mine." By the time he was 4, he had completed fifth-grade material. "I really hadn't noticed I was that smart," says Michael, who often stays up reading past midnight only to rise the next morning at 7 to watch his favorite show, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. "But I felt pretty good about it."

In 1988, 5-year-old Michael enrolled at NOVA, an alternative high school in Marin County, Calif., which he breezed through in a single year. When Michael was accepted by the University of South Alabama, the family moved to Mobile, and it was there that he earned his bachelor's degree. "He's one of the most intelligent people on Earth," says South Alabama professor Read Stowe. "There isn't a word for his brilliance."

Michael's indescribable acuity was carefully cultivated by his parents. Once they recognized his extraordinary gifts as an infant, they immediately taught him to read with the help of primers. "It was never our intention to push him," says Kevin. "Michael had a raging desire to learn. He spent two hours twice a week doing homework. Other days were spent playing video games, baseball and the piano." And while both parents possess 150-plus IQs, they insist their children did not inherit their intelligence. Not true, says Martha Morelock, a researcher at Tufts University's child-study department. "All gifted children I've studied," says Morelock, "have very bright parents and come from families with long histories of high achievement. I believe there is a heavy genetic influence."

Sibling rivalry must also be in the genes. "Maeghan's the slower of the two," teases Michael, sitting next to his sister in the family living room. "She has dyslexia." "Who has dyslexia?" shouts Cassidy. "Michael, you better cut that out!" Adds Maeghan, who certainly isn't dyslexic: "Michael's very smart, but he's sort of mean. He keeps picking on me. Sometimes I want to choke him."

Michael better lighten up or he'll never get the job he wants most—being a game show host. "I've heard that they work two days a week and get half a year off. That's 182½ days off," says Michael with a quick computation. "Doesn't that sound appealing?" Indeed, the Kearney family plans to move temporarily to Los Angeles this month so that Michael can pursue his ambition. (The film company Castle Rock is interested in talking with him.) Meantime, Michael is also thinking about going for a graduate degree in anthropology at Pepperdine, USC or Tufts near Boston, which would require the Kearneys to move yet again. Whatever he decides, it's clear that his hormones are finally catching up to his intellect. "I asked him what he'll do if he has a Ph.D. by the time he's 14," says Professor Stowe, "and he said he'll go back to high school." And why is that? "Because," says Michael, "that's where the girls are."

PETER CASTRO
MEG GRANT in Mobile

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