Former Mason Elementary students, from left, Sam Weyen, of Greater Atlanta Christian, Alex Peed, of Peachtree Ridge High, Leesa Quinlan, of Peachtree Ridge High and Willie Jin of the Gwinnett School of Math, Science and Technology shared memories of their elementary school days. All four were accepted to Harvard University, and Peed, Quinlan and Jin plan to attend Harvard, while Weyen plans to attend Stanford University. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)
DULUTH — They dressed up as Greek gods, memorized songs by the Beatles and built a replica of the International Space Station — all before middle school.
For a group of four students who began their school careers at Mason Elementary, learning was fun and they enjoyed coming to school. While they’ve moved on to different schools, and won’t all attend the same university, they have one thing in common again: All four were accepted to Harvard University.
Three of them, Leesa Quinlan, Willie Jin and Alex Peed plan to enroll at Harvard this fall, while Sam Weyen chose to attend Stanford University. Weyen, the valedictorian at Greater Atlanta Christian, first met Quinlan and Peed, who each graduated from Peachtree Ridge High, and Jin, the valedictorian at the Gwinnett School of Math, Science and Technology, in the Focus program for gifted students at Mason.
While his pros and cons list leaned toward Harvard, Weyen said he couldn’t keep himself from researching and asking about Stanford, which eventually settled his conscience.
“So that right there proved to me that’s where I want to go,” said Weyen, who plans to visit his buddies at Harvard. “That was one of my big selling points, I wanted to be with these people again.”
They were all taught by Abby Lockhart, who has taught gifted students for 14 years and been a teacher overall for 37 years. She saw enough in this quartet and their classmates to start algebra in the third grade and order the Charles Dickens classic “Great Expectations” for their fifth-grade year.
“I read it in eighth grade,” Lockhart said, “but I figured these were such fantastic minds, that they could read it.”
The group as a whole was very inquisitive.
“They were all very determined to learn all they could,” Lockhart said. “They always wanted to know why. They say gifted kids ask why, regular students just answer the question. … I never gave them anything they couldn’t do. They always wanted more and I think that’s the mark of an academically-gifted person.”
If, for one reason, there wasn’t Focus class that day, Lockhart said the students would maneuver her schedule to accomodate.
“You don’t need to eat lunch,” she recalled them saying. “You need to teach us.”
Trying to shape them as global students, Lockhart said she tried to expose them to many subjects so they would know a little something about everything. While she’s hesistant to take credit, Lockhart said she’s proud of their accomplishments, and students like them, “make you want to be a teacher.”
“We were really, by the end, friends,” she said.
While the four students have college acceptance in common, their entire gifted class was above average, and others plan to attend Duke University and Georgia Tech.
“There is a major sense of respect for everybody because you’ve seen what they can do and what they’re capable of,” Quinlan said. “This is a very special group of people.”
It was in Lockhart’s class that Weyen was first introduced to poetry, and he’s come to enjoy writing. And Weyen added that teachers like Lockhart made him want to do everything, not just one thing.
What set the four apart was their willingness to try anything, and being super-competitive.
Yet other students in the class chose a subject, from World War II history to building a candy bar company, that became their focus. Group projects also developed friendships.
“The whole group was so gifted,” Quinlan said. “But some people chose to focus their effort into a particular passion. We didn’t limit ourselves to any one particular area. We were able to try everything and be good at everything.”
While Peed has chosen to study economics and finance with hopes to enter the investment industry, the others are undecided about their majors and careers. Weyen could see himself working on the television show “MythBusters” or hosting the “Tonight Show,” while Quinlan plans to become a lawyer — if they don’t become President of the United States.
Jin, the others agree, could be the next Steve Jobs, unless he serves in their White House cabinet.
Whatever they choose, at least three of them may end up studying right next to each other, just like they did 13 years ago.
“It’s so great to know people going to the same school as you, not to know their name, or know they went to the same school as you, but to actually know them and to be in school with them for so long and know you have another four years together,” Quinlan said.