Even as a tot, 16-year-old Ben Lunday of Decatur didn’t give his parents the answers they expected.
At 2, he was playing in the yard while his mother, Kristi, tended her plants. Although she can’t recall what exactly he was doing, she remembers scolding him over and over.
“Finally, I told him again, ‘Ben, stop doing that!'” his mother recalled. “He looked at me and said, ‘Mom, don’t get so ‘zasperated’ (exasperated). I knew at that point what I had.”
When he was 6, Ben played with a toy truck that bore “H20” on the side.
When his dad, David, asked him if he knew what that meant, Ben responded: “Yeah, those are the elements that make up water.”
“Not the answer I was looking for,” his father laughed. “I was just expecting him to say water.”
David asked his son how he knew about elements and Ben replied, “They’re in the periodic table, Dad.”
When David asked how he knew about that, Ben informed him he’d been reading the third-grade level science book his dad had given him.
Ben took the SAT as a freshman. David picked him up after the test and asked how it went.
“It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be,” Ben replied.
“Again, not the answer I was looking for,” David said.
Ben scored in the 90th percentile.
“That kind of stuff,” David said.
Much like his unexpected replies to routine questions, Ben will return to class this fall – but not at Decatur High School.
On Monday, the high school junior will begin classes at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science (TAMS) at the University of North Texas in Denton.
The residential program is open to juniors and seniors of Texas high schools who are “high achievers and interested in mathematics and science.”
The two-year program includes a rigorous academic curriculum of college coursework taught by university faculty.
“I am very excited, but there is a sense of apprehension,” Ben said. “It will definitely be the first time that I will struggle to gain understanding and do well in classes. I expect to become a better scholar, more academic and how to better learn and apply my knowledge to the world.”
Ben’s parents admit raising their son was fairly easy.
“I’ve never had to help him with homework,” his dad said, “I’ve never had to say, ‘Do your homework’ because he’s always ahead. We read to him and taught him to read early, but the rest has been him.”
“The challenge has been keeping him not bored,” his mom added.
They found the answer in TAMS.
After hearing about it through a family friend, Elise Keller, who completed the program in 2012, Ben knew he wanted to participate.
“I decided I wanted a more challenging academic experience, and this is really what I really wanted to do in my academic career,” said Ben, who has attended Decatur ISD for all of his schooling. “From that point, I’ve been working up to this point.
“I’ve structured my yearly schedule in school to prepare for the audition process to get into TAMS. I made sure I took challenging classes that would prepare me for the rigor of collegiate courses, and I made sure they best reflected my academic experience.”
Last November, he filed an application that listed the basics and outlined in essay form why he wanted to attend, how he’d fit into the community and other key details.
He was invited to an interview in January, where two diagnostic math exams were administered. Two months later, he received word that he had been accepted.
Approximately 600 students – from as far away as Brownsville, Harlingen and Houston – apply. Only 200 are accepted.
Those students and families attended orientation in June.
“Everything just kind of rolled from there,” Kristi said.
As a TAMS student, Ben will take on a college schedule of rigorous university courses.
“You don’t have a fully-packed day,” he said. “You have different classes on different days. Sixteen hours the first semester, and then we’ll be able to pick our schedule next semester.”
TAMS participants also have the opportunity to do research with professors.
Although the focus of the program is academic rigor, students are also required to complete community service hours and become involved in university clubs.
“They build the well-rounded person instead of just somebody who can study well,” Kristi said.
TAMS students have their own dorm, staff and curfew.
Ben will complete the program in two years, earning a high school diploma from UNT and between 60 to 72 college hours – enough to start college as a junior.
He will have a two-year advantage in the pursuit of his goals.
He plans to complete his undergraduate studies at Rice University before moving on to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) or Caltech (California Institute of Technology) to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees en route to becoming a particle physicist.
“Those schools are at the top of their game, very prestigious, excellent physics programs,” he said. “As for aspiring to become a particle physicist, I started looking into science and realized that the subatomic part of our world is really quite interesting. It has effects upon every single aspect of our world.”
His first step toward those goals came Thursday when he and the 199 other participants moved into McConnell Hall at UNT.
He was a little nervous, but excitement trumped all other emotions.
“I’ve always been looking for something more in high school,” he said. “I’ve always wanted a challenge. Nothing has ever really personally given me something to grab onto and challenge me to become a better scholar. This will definitely be it, and I’m ready.”
Whether they expected it or not, that is a response his parents are relieved to hear.
WISE COUNTY AT TAMS
Other members of this year’s junior cohort are Renee White of Decatur and Matt Sullivan-Green of Bridgeport.