Danville Express

Cover Story - July 20, 2007

An hour with Evan

Math patterns are the central motif for Danville's spelling champ

by Natalie O'Neill

Underneath the faded "congratulations" sign that hangs in the entryway of Evan O'Dorney's home, the 13-year-old greets me with a toothy grin.

Behind his glasses, Danville's budding genius and National Spelling Bee Champion has a gaze of recognition - it's not the first time we've met. Last time I knocked on the O'Dorney door, however, something was different. There was no congratulatory sign - remnants of a widely publicized spelling victory - to frame the quirky, boyish first impression he made.

Now shoeless with black socks pulled all the way up to his knees, Evan says "hi" in voice that's beginning to crack. Dark peach fuzz is poking up from his top lip and his tousled hair sticks up in the back.

He stares at me softly, curiously for an elongated period of time, then leads me past a hulking golden Scripps spelling cup, into the living room.

The grand piano where Evan composes classic concertos and fermatas is the centerpiece of the room, along with a neglected television set, one that Evan considers "just noise."

With a little prompting he begins to talk about his love for music, which he sees as, really, just an extension of mathematics.

"When you make music, there's not as much reason for the patterns, they just sound good. They don't exist objectively like math patterns do," he says.

Evan can talk about logical things - math, spelling, and even musical theory all day. To him, logical subjects, even extremely complex branches of mathematics, click easily. But ask him why he likes to learn or how music makes him feel and you hit a brick wall.

"You're asking me how it makes me feel?" he says, while pacing and shifting around the room. "That's too abstract of a question."

So we stick to the stuff he knows.

Hunched over the piano, he holds up sheet music that has been scribbled in child-like handwriting. He plays me some songs he's written, trying his best to teach a mathematically dense reporter about advanced musical theory.

"Did you hear the Sequential Omnibus?" he asks after playing.

The what? I scratch the incorrect spelling of "Omnibus" on my pad, and Evan is quick to poke fun at me.

"Did you spell that wrong?" he laughs, peeking over at my scribbles.

After all, "omnibus" is nothing when you're churning out the words "serrefine," "yosenabe" and "pappardelle" for a nationally broadcast spelling bee.

In front of a piano, conversation is clearly a second thought for him.

I want to know if there's anything hard about being smarter than most kids his age. What does he think when people call him a genius? And how does he feel about being pummeled with media attention?

Instead of answering, he responds with an impromptu series of notes on the piano, making gorgeous ditties off the top of his head. He stares straight ahead, his tongue out in concentration, with little intention of answering.

Moving away from the piano, it's easier to break through the shell of small talk. He confesses it's sometimes hard for him to focus on conversations with people. And he explains that he's easily distracted because he sees patterns in everything.

Tile walls, fabric, tables - mathematic designs in these objects pop out at him, whether he wants them to or not. They overtake his mind, he says. While spotting patterns are what make advanced level college math courses a breeze for him, it can be socially distracting.

"Designs on floors and in anything makes me start thinking about math," he says.

In fact, he recently spotted a pattern while on live national TV, during his post-Bee 15 minutes of fame.

Midway through an interview on Jimmy Kimmel's popular ABC Late Night TV show, Evan noticed a design on the talk show host's tie. Red and blue geometric shapes popped out at Evan and he lost himself in thoughts of math.

"Jimmy Kimmel thought he couldn't answer the question," his mother Jennifer O'Dorney says, but he was just contemplating math patterns.

Along the same lines, Evan explains that he hears music in his head all day long, even when it's quiet. This is great for creativity, but not so much for everyday life.

"I don't find it cool," he says. "I don't like it when I'm trying to concentrate on something else."

Even in his sleep, math patterns are the central motif. He describes the scene of his last dream - a frustrating one, where he found himself wandering through the inside of a big building, struggling to find an exit.

"I was walking through hallways and I saw tiling on the wall. At first I was happy to see it and the second time I didn't like it. I was hoping it was an exit and then I just saw the wall again," he says.

Usually around the age of 12, child prodigies display expert proficiency in one specified field. They typically have extremely different priorities than other kids their age, with the desire to learn at the top of the list and social interactions at the bottom. This makes relating to peers difficult.

It's not uncommon for child prodigies to feel uninterested in kids their own age or to be ostracized in social settings. Famous child prodigies include composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, chess player Bobby Fischer and English poet Thomas Chatterton.

Around the time Evan turned 12, Jim O'Brien, Evan's academic advisor, told the Danville Weekly he believes Evan is a child prodigy. He is a "sponge," O'Brien said.

"I think it's very much innate," mother Jennifer says.

"Even when he was really young, he was the one with his hand up on (Scouts) tours, asking the intelligent questions," she says, with a proud smile.

Cross-legged in front of a make-shift board game, Evan looks curious, as usual.

Making up complex games on graph paper grids is another hobby he's taken a liking to, in addition to juggling, Latin and acoustic guitar.

The game, which he's dubbed "Expressway," uses the combination of luck and strategy to move pieces quickly to the opposite end of the board. It's the easiest of the ones he's created.

Evan patiently explains the rules and we face off for a little friendly competition.

"Do you notice anything different about these dice?" he says, showing me there are no 4s, 5s, or 6s.

He lets me get in a couple of good rolls, then promptly wins in the first round.

Jennifer, who smiles freely, is sympathetic. She's used to being beaten at these same games. Unlike Evan, math doesn't come easily to her. It would take both her and me years to complete some of the equations Evan rips through.

"I'm still disappointed that people know me for spelling," Evan says. "(Math is) my true love."

Making our way back out to the entrance of the O'Dorney home, I pass more evidence of his true love - piles of books, a mini-pool table for practicing geometric angles, and sheets of musical notes.

Once at the front door, I turn to say goodbye to Evan and Jennifer. But Evan spontaneously decides to walk me out to my car - parked down the street - while informing me of his most recent guitar discoveries.

By the time we get to the car we're both jazzed on the subject of music and we slap each other a clumsy high five to say goodbye. I shut the door, give him a wave, and watch as he makes his way back toward the faded congratulations sign - shoeless and all.

In Evan's world, shoes, combed hair and conversation may be an afterthought, but patterns - and the astounding art and theory that accompany them - are at the forefront of his rare and exceptional brain.


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