The Wiz

By David Finkel
Sunday, June 13, 1993

THE SOUND COMES from the back of the throat, a tiny noise that is doomed to failure even as it begins. "Wait," Elizabeth Mann is trying to say, attempting to slip into a discussion that is swirling around her. It is a loud discussion with overlapping voices, but Elizabeth is a close listener, and she has heard something that needs correcting, or at least elaboration. She also is a patient listener who doesn't blurt out her thoughts, but waits for an opening to fit into. Now, hearing the other voices drop off, sensing her moment, she begins to speak, only to realize immediately that she has miscalculated, that the opening has already closed, that she doesn't stand a chance, that she is on the precipice of another of those moments in which, sooner or later, she will end up awkwardly trailing off into silence without having been heard. And so she does what she often seems to do in these situations: She gives in, chokes off the word, lets it die as a squeak and goes back to listening, patiently listening, waiting for the next opportunity. She doesn't seem bothered, and neither does she seem surprised.

The setting for this is Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. It is third period, Quantum Physics, the most difficult class in the school's math, science and computer magnet program. The class's mission is nothing less than trying to understand the forces that rule the universe, and to that end, seven of the country's brightest high school seniors sit around a table, working their way through a book on Einstein's general theory of relativity. There is Steve Chien, Blair High's valedictorian. There is Josh Weitz, the salutatorian. There is an intense-looking boy named Sudheer Shukla, and another boy named Danilo Almeida, and another named Jeff Tseng, and another named Jeff Wang, and lastly there is Elizabeth. The girl.

This day's topic: something about the failings of Euclidian geometry and an equation called the generalized Pythagorean theorem for Gaussian coordinates. It all seems indecipherable, but as soon as the bell rings, the discussion is off and running, and very quickly, as is usually the case, it is dominated by Steve, who sits to Elizabeth's right, and Josh, who sits to her left.

Steve talks. Josh interrupts. Steve mumbles. Josh interrupts that. Steve grabs a marker, goes to the board and tries to work something out. Josh goes to the board too, using one hand to draw and the other to hold a cheese sandwich, which he has been wolfing down.

And through it all, Elizabeth sits, listening.

She tries to say, "Wait," and falls silent.

She tries again. "Soooo," she manages to get out.

She tries a third time, this time snapping her fingers and lightly slapping the table, and finally, after that has failed, she gets up, draws something on the board, and explains in her always polite way, a way that often turns a statement into a question, that maybe this is the way to look at what they've been talking about? Then she sits and resumes listening, not to Steve or Josh or any of the other boys, but to the teacher, who is complimenting her for what she has done. "Beautiful," he says. "It really simplifies what we've been talking about. Very nice. Very nice."

The moment, surely, is sweet, but vanishes in an instant. This seems not to surprise Elizabeth either. She is in her second year of this class, of being the girl among the boys, and by now she knows the pattern. The discussion resumes, voices again overlap, and Elizabeth says nothing more, not until long after the bell has rung, when she tries to explain why the class, once her favorite, has lately made her feel uncomfortable. She says, "All last year I loved it, and for most of the beginning of this year I did, and now sometimes I'm just scared." She says, "I feel like 'The Girl' in the class. It's something I'm very conscious of, almost every minute in there." She says, "I have a certain fear that somehow when I'm in that class, I'm this impostor who doesn't really understand."

She does understand, though. She gets nothing but A's in the class, and the teacher, Harvey Alperin, says if she isn't the best student, she is one of the top two. Her discomfort, it turns out, has nothing to do with studying the forces that rule the universe. Those she can figure out. Instead, it comes from forces far more puzzling, the ones that rule the life of a 17-year-old girl who happens to be smart.

SHE IS MORE THAN SMART, in fact. She is brilliant. She scored 1570 (out of 1600) on the SATs, 800 (out of 800) on her Achievement test in math and 800 on her Achievement test in physics. She is a National Merit finalist and a presidential scholar semifinalist, and she was accepted into every college she applied to, finally settling on Harvard. She also has never smoked a cigarette nor drunk the first drop of alcohol, rarely fights with her parents and doesn't yell at her younger brother. She also has perfect hearing, and pretty good vision, and clear blue eyes, and strawberry-blond hair, and cream-colored skin, and a good smile, and perfect teeth, and short fingernails that sometimes, at night, when she is on the phone, and no one is around to see what she is doing, she will paint pink. "And then I'll think: Should I take this off before school?" And she always does.

Pink, she knows, doesn't fit in with her reputation, and neither does anything else that could seem too frivolous. She is seen as someone who never falters and never has any doubts about her academic abilities. Some of the younger girls in the magnet program look at her as a kind of role model, while teachers seem to regard her as the student they've been waiting for for their entire careers. Her computer teacher, Mary Ellen Verona, says, "I think Elizabeth's the most incredible girl I've taught, no two ways about it." Her guidance counselor, Leah Cutler, uses the term "lovely modesty" to describe her, and her journalism teacher, John Mathwin, says, "Elizabeth's amazing. I wrote a recommendation for her earlier this year. She gave me her resume, and it was three pages long, single-spaced, with things like 'Sixth in the World' in some kind of competition."

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© 1993 The Washington Post Company