At 8 years old, Minn. boy takes on advanced math

By Mila Koumpilova

St. Paul Pioneer Press

Published: Friday, Nov. 25 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

In this photo taken Nov. 16, 2011, Mani Chadaga, a third-grader at Capitol Hill Magnet School, leaves his geometry class with older students and goes to his third grade class in St. Paul, Minn.

Pioneer Press, Jean Pieri, Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — In his first algebra class last year, Mani Chadaga slumped low in his front-row seat and pretended to read his new textbook intently.

Mani could make himself only so inconspicuous: He was, after all, a second-grader in a junior high class at St. Paul's Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet School.

So he stopped trying.

Soon, he was piping up with solutions to the teacher's questions and standing before his stumped classmates, explaining how he arrived at them. These days, as a third-grader juggling Algebra II and geometry, he kneels in his seat, only a smidgen of his early shyness and all his humility intact.

"I am not the best at anything, so I want to improve at everything," said the 8-year-old.

Mani's parents and teachers are bracing for the task of keeping things interesting for him in the coming years. To Vivek and Julia Chadaga, his story shows how far schools have come in catering to voracious learners like Mani. But it also shows that when restless curiosity and true passion hold sway, age really is just a number.

Mani and his parents can trace the beginnings of his fascination with math to age 2 or 3, when he invented the Number Creatures. He drew pages upon pages of these numbers with faces and personalities, peering out the windows of their futuristic skyscrapers in the galaxy Hexer.

"He created a whole mythology around numbers," Julia said.

A couple of years later, Mani went trick-or-treating dressed as the number 4, baffling the neighbors. By 4, he readily added and subtracted. By 5, he'd mastered the multiplication table.

Kindergarten started with a strange test: He had to count to 10. At that time, he could count to 1,000, and he did - all the time.

"Put away your dishes," his parents would say.

"Don't interrupt me," he replied. "I am counting."

Both Mani's parents are word people, rather than number people: Julia Chadaga teaches Russian at Macalester College. Vivek Chadaga is a freelance editor.

But they, too, were precocious learners, and now they were worried about school. In rural Pennsylvania, one elementary teacher would sit Vivek Chadaga in the back of the classroom with a copy of Reader's Digest. His parents would field calls from other teachers: "He's just bored out of his mind, and we have no idea what to do with him."

The Chadagas wanted Mani to have a more stimulating experience, but it was also important to them that their son spend most of the school day with his peers.

At Capitol Hill, all students take a math test at the start of the school year, which lands roughly half of them in a higher grade for math classes. It's not uncommon for fifth- and sixth-graders to climb the stairs to the school's second floor for math instruction at Capitol Hill Junior High, said Assistant Principal Renee Jensen.

Even so, what would happen to Mani was "really, really unusual."

Within weeks of starting first grade, Mani had moved up to fourth-grade math. In the spring, he worked on the fifth-grade math textbook in the evenings. Over the summer, he tackled the sixth-grade textbook, at the rate of two to three hours at a time, seven days a week. Vivek Chadaga helped out, but he says, "Oftentimes, Mani was the one teaching me."

That's how a nervous Mani stepped into that junior high algebra class as a second-grader.

"I felt proud, but a little embarrassed, too," he recalls. "I felt like maybe I was too far ahead in math."

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