Tuesday is museum day for 7-year-old Romanieo Golphin Jr. So one recent afternoon, the boy and his father visited the National Gallery of Art. As they approached works by neoclassical painters, Romanieo Golphin Sr. spoke to his son about technique in a hushed tone.
“Typically, you’ll have the master in the room and then his students,” the father said.
Golphin quizzed his son about a painting across the exhibit. A correct answer, he promised, would mean extra french fries at lunch.
“That’s John Singer Sargent,” Romanieo said. He was wrong — but it was difficult to see the painting from that distance. After that, he easily picked out works by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and J.M.W. Turner.
The home-schooling session was typical for the Silver Spring boy, who has shown what his parents, and some academics, say is an unusual intellect. He loves art and shows an aptitude for music, but Romanieo’s passion is science.
Though he’s still into Legos and candy, Romanieo recently had an opportunity that many scientists dream about. He and his family were invited to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which runs the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest science experiment, in Switzerland.
“It was excellent!” Romanieo said of the November trip, which he called as awesome as a hundred thousand ginger squares, a favorite treat.
To Steven Goldfarb, the experimental physicist at CERN who invited the Golphin family to tour the facilities, Romanieo is no ordinary boy.
“Romanieo Jr. looked like he would be a lot of fun to host, and my hunch was correct!” Goldfarb wrote in an email.
Struck by the boy’s age and interest in physics, Goldfarb named him a CERN “ambassador” to the Washington area, with the prospect of attracting more young people to the experiments there and to science overall.
One reason he likes science, Romanieo said, is the “big words,” like “cyclohexanecarboxylic acid,” which would be a mouthful for any adult. “They’re not a mouthful for me,” he said.
Romanieo has never been enrolled in a public or private school. His father is an adviser for the music department at the University of North Carolina. His mother, Cheri Philip, is a personality psychologist and serves as the research director for their educational consulting firm, the Robeson Group. Dissatisfied with the outcomes in traditional education, both parents have committed themselves to home-schooling Romanieo and preparing him for the future their way.
“Enough with the Industrial Age approach to education in the 21st century,” Golphin said.
Golphin spent some of his youth in the projects of Brooklyn and remembers other gifted young African Americans who felt trapped by their circumstances. Some had broken homes and parents unprepared to handle their children’s thirst for knowledge.
Roughly 3 percent of students are home-schooled in the United States. When Romanieo was born, Golphin and Philip discussed an advanced education for their only child, knowing that studies have shown that infants and toddlers possess a greater capacity for absorbing information than previously thought. Romanieo’s mother was skeptical at first. But as he grew, their son seemed to grasp the high-level concepts his father was feeding him.
For instance, Romanieo began exhibiting his understanding of elements as only a child could. One day, he used his popcorn snack to create model atoms, his father said. With his little hand forming a nucleus, he used popcorn kernels as protons, neutrons and electrons to make elements such as nitrogen and lithium.
Golphin fixed himself on providing an education that no school could.
He estimates that the family has taken advantage of $1 million worth of free educational opportunities, seeking them wherever they can find them, online or otherwise. When he’s not taking his son to free programs at museums, he routinely brings Romanieo to university classes to observe, and sometimes even to speak, as he did at Morehouse College and Duke University in 2015.
“When he looked in my classroom, all I saw was his hair, his forehead and his eyeballs,” said Brian Hogan, a professor of chemistry at UNC. “And his eyeballs, they looked like hard-boiled eggs, they were open so wide.”
The more Hogan talked with the boy, the more he realized he was dealing with an exceptional child.
“At first, I was like: Is this a gimmick? Was it Mister Ed the counting horse?” he said.
Hogan has been a strong advocate for the Golphins since they met and has been impressed with Romanieo’s desire to learn.
“He could be the next Einstein,” Hogan said. “He’s got a mind that is built to solve problems.”
“I do know that his memory is very impressive and that he appears to have developed some of his own methods to absorb and retain information,” Goldfarb said regarding Romanieo’s intellect. “I wish I had that.”
In many ways, though, Romanieo is like any other 7-year-old boy. He watches shows on Netflix, plays games such as Uno and enjoys puzzles.
“I have a fish puzzle with 300 pieces,” Romanieo said. “The puzzle itself is big, and it glows in the dark.” He gets excited talking about playtime.
And when he’s in his room, he builds with Legos, surrounded by things he likes, a poster of a jet and a drawing he did of a squirrel. He also has a poster of the periodic table.
For his parents, home schooling has not been easy. Despite the abundance of free resources, Golphin estimates a monthly household expenditure of as much as $1,000 to form a curriculum. The trip to CERN cost around $11,000, which they were able to absorb with help from donors.
Besides the financial aspects, the hardest part is balancing work life with lessons, Golphin said. Fortunately, both parents have flexible work schedules.
“You got to be the lunch lady, and you got to be the custodian, and the bus driver … and the gym teacher,” Golphin said.
He has also taken on the role of music teacher. Golphin’s love of classical music and opera has rubbed off on his son. Romanieo demonstrated perfect pitch when tested at UNC’s music department.
“This is a young genius that I’ve just rarely seen, that kind of intelligence,” said James Moeser, chancellor emeritus at UNC, who has gotten to know Romanieo and his father over the past couple of years.
“Right now, he’s pretty big in the guitar,” Golphin said. “He’s doing a little bluegrass, a little country, a little rock.”
While Golphin hopes that his son will focus his intellect on work that changes people’s lives through science, he acknowledges that Romanieo’s penchant for music and the arts could lead him in other directions.
“Let the boy free, and he’s going to create his world,” Golphin said.
At one point during the CERN tour, Romanieo stood for a photograph in front of a 50-foot-tall, life-size image of the CMS detector, one of the experiments that confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, a key particle in physics.
The actual machine, 100 feet below ground, sends protons around its 17-mile ring 11,000 times a second and smashes them together. “The boy and the light ring,” his father calls it, like something out of a science-fiction movie. It was the closest Romanieo could get to the high-energy particle accelerator because of radiation.
“We have a lot of big questions, and we need an army of Romanieos to get prepared to help us to find answers in the coming decades,” Goldfarb said.
For now, though, Romanieo is enjoying just being a kid.
He’s got coloring books and likes to bury himself in his iPad, playing puzzle or brain teaser apps.
When he’s outside, he shreds the streets on his scooter, using a pedal on the back to send sparks into the air. He calls it “pulsar riding,” named after the astronomical phenomenon of a spinning neutron star that emits electromagnetic radiation.