By the time he was 4 years old, he could easily recite all 50 of the United States from memory, and it was around that time that his mother, Kimberly McBurnett, knew there was something very special about her son.
On Dec. 15, only 14 years later, Ben graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with high honors, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics at the age of 18, after having attended for two and a half years. Along with his mother, his father David McBurnett, his sister Lauren McBurnett, and grandparents Gary and Maxine Cochran and Bobby and Pat McBurnett were there in the crowd, cheering him on.
Ben began his school career at Glenwood Primary, but even before he was in kindergarten, he was able to do double-digit subtraction … mentally.
“When we really started to notice he was gifted in math, it was right before he started kindergarten,” McBurnett said. “He could already do double-digit subtraction problems where he would have to borrow, but he could do it in his head. And he could look up (and picture the numbers), and then he could spit out the answer.”
When he started school, administrators placed him in second-grade math immediately, she said, but that was because he was in primary school and second grade was the highest level they could offer him at that time.
He continued his education at Armuchee Elementary School, where he skipped the third grade entirely. He attended Armuchee Middle and High through the 10th grade, but his mother said Ben was frustrated with the public school system because the education standards were just not challenging him enough. Even after attending Darlington for his 11th-grade year, where he quickly climbed to the top of the class, Ben was still bored.
“He was miserable in public school,” she said. “Honestly, he probably should have went sooner to college. He hated it. In fact, we were considering letting him take his GED when we ran across the early admission at Tech, because he had had it.”
“And he had switched schools,” she continued. “He was at Armuchee, and then we let him go to Darlington thinking that would be a challenge, and then when he made it to the head of the class at Darlington, it was kind of like there wasn’t anything left to do. He’d just had it. He needed more.”
Ben jokingly puts on his Facebook profile that he’s a high school dropout, since he never actually graduated. He took the SAT when he was 15 and scored a 2260 out of a possible 2400. Then when he was 16, Ben was admitted into Georgia Tech’s early admission program because of his high score.
However, at Tech, Ben rarely went to class.
“He can read a textbook … it’s kind of embarrassing to say, but he didn’t even go to class very often at Tech because he could just read the textbook and know it,” McBurnett said.
Ben said that no one except his closest friends knew he was only 16, including his professors.
“They wouldn’t guess, and I wouldn’t tell them,” he said. “I just kind of kept it quiet.”
“He just looked like he was 12, and they were too embarrassed to ask,” his mother said, laughing.
Ben said he tutored others at Georgia Tech and was also a Peer-Led Undergraduate Study leader.
“They have these things called Recitations, it’s like an extra lecture,” Ben explained, “and if you don’t catch it with that, there’s another one we have called Plus. And I taught that for three semesters, calculus with linear algebra. But they would never guess I was 17 years old and doing that.”
Though Ben’s intelligence is rare and unique, he said he can talk to anyone. Being very down-to-earth, his genius doesn’t render him unable to connect with people who have varying levels of intellect, his mother said.
“He’s done a great job of blending in,” McBurnett said. “I know with some people who are very intelligent, they tend to be on the weird side. But he’s always been able to blend and get along with all ages of people.”
But what’s even more notable is that Ben vehemently denies that he’s special. When asked if he excelled in all subject areas, given the fact he was always at the top of his class in high school, he actually admitted he was probably better at other subjects than math.
“I’m adequate in math,” he said. “But I’m probably the same in every area.”
His mother rolled her eyes. “His ‘normal’ is not everybody else’s ‘normal,’ and he’s never understood that regular people are right here and he’s here,” she said, mimicking the bottom and top rungs of a ladder. “He has a hard time gripping that we don’t think like he does.”
Before she could finish her sentence, her son was shaking his head. “That’s not true,” he said.
“It is true; it’s very true,” she nodded. “Hey, what was your GPA when you left high school?”
“I- I don’t know,” he said, looking down.
“It was very high,” McBurnett said. “He’s very modest, and he won’t say. … I’m an educator, and I’ve been around regular people for a long period of time, and he’s always just been outside the norm, but he has this wonderful quality of modesty. And that’s great.”
In fact, it’s probably safe to assume the teen is nothing short of mortified that there’s an article about him in the Rome News-Tribune. Demonstrating extreme modesty, Ben values his anonymity and very much dislikes being the center of attention. He prefers to fly under the radar, he said.
McBurnett said she wished she could have done more to help Ben foster his intellect when he was younger. “I truly did not realize how smart he was until … well, even now just the fact that he got to Georgia Tech and was able to breeze through it and graduate with honors in 2½ years, at 16,” she said. “And I feel badly as a mom that I didn’t do a lot more for him when he was little, because he could have done more. I just didn’t get a grasp of where he was.”
She said because he’s so smart, he’s always been very mature, though Ben, of course, denied it.
“I’ve always said it’s like talking to a 40-year-old,” she said. “He’s always been a great kid. My biggest complaint about him was wet towels in the bedroom. He didn’t cause any problems whatsoever. And he totally navigated the system at Tech. I mean, once he got through the door, the scheduling, the housing, all the road blocks, he did it completely by himself.”
She said she couldn’t be more proud of her brilliant, endearing son, who tutored and helped his friends at Tech by pulling them along through the rigorous courses, helping them to reach their fullest potentials.
“I’m extremely proud of him, and I really feel like it’s a gift,” she said. “And I hope he uses that gift to do something good. I try to tell him all the time that people aren’t like him, and he really needs to appreciate that. And I think he’s showing signs of that (in) the way he helps everybody.”
Ben himself said he plans to continue his education, and his mother expects he will continue to go as high in his field as he possibly can.
“I’m going to go back for a master’s degree for quantitative finance at Georgia Tech again,” Ben said, adding that he values the nearly three years he spent getting his bachelor’s degree. “It was fun. It was hard, but I think you grow up a lot at Georgia Tech just in general. I would do it again; if I had to do it all over again, I’d go back to Georgia Tech.”