When Elliott Tanner was born 11 years ago, he was already holding his head up. Right away, his eyes would track his parents’ gaze. At 4 weeks old, he started rolling over.
“We just thought this is how kids are,” said his mother, Michelle Tanner of St. Louis Park. “We just kept going, ‘Oh, isn’t this cute!’ ”
By age 2 he was reading sight words, by 3 reading board books, by 5 reading high-school textbooks. His parents soon realized Elliott was different from other kids his age.
His kindergarten classmates wanted to talk about superheroes; Elliott wanted to talk about quantum physics. His parents decided to home-school him.
Now 11, Elliott is a junior math major at the University of Minnesota. He won’t be the youngest college graduate ever when he graduates in three semesters — that honor still belongs to Michael Kearney, who was 10 years and 4 months old in 1994 when he graduated from the University of South Alabama with a degree in electrical engineering — but Elliott will be close.
All along the way, Michelle and Patrik Tanner have scrutinized their parenting decisions for their only child: Is this unique path right for their son? But when he cried every morning before kindergarten because he felt isolated from other kids, how could they choose any other path?
His mother got a Hamline University professor to tutor him at age 6. He started at Normandale Community College three weeks after his 9th birthday.
“We always go back to wanting him to be happy,” Michelle said on a recent afternoon at the cafe in Northrop auditorium, as Elliott peeled apart his string cheese and smiled. “People automatically think I’m a Tiger Mom. It’s the exact opposite. We’re not pushing — we’re being pulled. We’d dig our feet in, and he’d be like, ‘Come on!’ ”
The biggest misconception the Tanners hear about their child and his path is that he’s missing out on childhood.
“Cue misconception speech!” Elliott said with a laugh.
“It’s well-rehearsed,” his father added.
Is his childhood like other kids’? No. For Christmas, he is asking for a $170 textbook, “Physics for Scientists and Engineers.” For Halloween, he has dressed as Richard Feynman (the American theoretical physicist), Dmitri Mendeleev (the Russian chemist), Isaac Newton (the English mathematician and physicist) and Albert Einstein (no explanation needed). His favorite movies are “Particle Fever,” a documentary about the first experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, and “The Current War,” a drama about the rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. He rushes to his college classes so he can sit in the front row — not because he kisses up to teachers but because if he’s in back, he can’t see over other students.
Not missing out
But he also loves “Angry Birds” and “Frozen 2.” He’s reading through the Harry Potter series for the second time. He bought himself a Nintendo Switch with money he earned from tutoring high school students. Until recently, he loved Pokémon, but he switched his loyalties to Dungeons and Dragons, which he plays with some neighborhood kids.
And his parents still tell him the same things every parent of an 11-year-old boy tells their kid: “Put the toilet seat down!” “Brush your teeth!” “Wash your hands!” And most of all: “Where is your hat?!”
“Even though it may not look like I still get to be a kid, I still get to be a kid,” Elliott said. “Don’t judge a book by its stereotypical reviews.”
As Elliott spoke, a torn sheet of notebook paper filled with numbers sat in front of him.
“For leisure purposes, I wanted to find the eigenvalue of a three-by-three matrix to see how tedious it was.”
Find the what?
“The eigenvalue. Also known as the proper value.”
“I found out that it’s equal to negative 15, plus or minus the square root of 153 divided by negative two, 13.7 and 0.66. Those are the two non-trivial eigenvalues of my matrix.”
One can only assume his calculations were correct.
He did it in calculus, though he should have been paying attention to the professor.
Elliott’s parents met when his dad, who moved to Minnesota from Sweden in the 1980s, was playing guitar for Martin Zellar and The Hardways, a Minneapolis rock band. Michelle was in the crowd during a show at The Fine Line. She caught his eye; he kept losing his place in the music, so he turned his back to the crowd. They went on a date the next day. The next week, she joined him and the band on tour. For the next year, she was the de facto band manager.
The hardest part of their situation is finances. Patrik produces music and plays music; he played 160 shows this year with the Minneapolis band GB Leighton. Michelle is a freelance photographer, but her full-time job is really Elliott. Most mornings, she drives him to campus. They park in the $5 lot near TCF Bank Stadium and trudge half a mile to class. They’re using the state’s postsecondary enrollment options program to pay for school this year, but they’ll be on the hook for $14,000 in tuition next year.
“People assume that because he’s so young and so brilliant, he’s going to be set for college and get all these scholarships — but it’s not like that at all,” Michelle said. “We love him, and we think he’s amazing, but it’s a hard lifestyle. We wouldn’t choose this.”
Friends with ‘Young Sheldon’ actor
People compare Elliott to the main character in the CBS show “Young Sheldon,” which is about 9-year-old Sheldon Cooper (from “The Big Bang Theory”) going to high school. That comparison is funny to Elliott, because he’s actually friends with Iain Armitage, the 10-year-old actor who plays Sheldon. Iain’s mother reached out after seeing Elliott on “Good Morning America.” They visited Iain on the Warner Bros. lot in Los Angeles and went to a trampoline park with him.
When he grows up, Elliott wants to become a mathematician or a theoretical physicist. When people exclaim he’s going to be rich, or he’s going to cure cancer, his parents demur. Elliott just likes to learn. He likes physics because it helps explain nature and why things exist the way they do. This semester he’s learned about Einstein’s theory of relativity, which Elliott begins to explain this way: “When something goes fast, it gets shorter, according to the Lorentz factor.”
According to the what?
“The Lorentz factor is equal to the reciprocal of the square root of one minus v-squared over c-squared.”
“Would you like me to write it down for you?”
His mother laughed.
“Once people get to know us, they realize, ‘Oh, you are doing the best thing for him,’ ” she said. “Anytime anyone tells us we’re doing the wrong thing, we’re like, ‘Come and have dinner with us. Try to keep up with him.’ ”
Reid Forgrave • 612-673-4647