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What Ever Happened to Daphne?

What Ever Happened to Daphne?
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Yankee classic from October, 2001.

If it hadn’t been for the test, most likely nobody outside of Aroostook County, Maine, would have heard or cared about what Daphne Brinkerhoff did with her life. She would have remained a local phenomenon, like a hidden waterfall that only a few know how to find. But she took the test in Presque Isle on a January morning in 1988, a 12-year-old bundled against the frigid Maine air, riding 50 miles northward through snow squalls in her mother’s ’83 Dodge. In time millions of people would know what the villagers in New Limerick and Hodgdon and Amity and Haynesville had known for years: The smartest kid in Maine lived right there, growing up beside the snow-covered farms and woodpiles and the tired machines that lay across the yards waiting for their parts to one day resuscitate other tired machines.

It was a Saturday morning in early spring with snow clinging to the ground when the trajectory of her young life changed. On that day her mother, Barbara Brinkerhoff, stepped out the door of the house that stood along a back road in New Limerick, a village of 524 people, and set out for the general store and post office next door. Jill Carton handed her the letter she had been waiting for since January. Though it was addressed to her daughter, Barbara opened the envelope.

“My mother came in the house,” recalls Daphne. “She threw the mail on the couch. She went to the wood stove and stood there looking out the window. My mother always knew I was smart, but maybe just smart for Aroostook. This said more. ‘These are your SAT scores,’ she said. ‘Now I know you can do anything you want.’ ”

A few weeks later at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, Dr. Julian Stanley took note of Daphne’s College Board tests. As founder of Johns Hopkins’s Center for Talented Youth, he had spent nearly two decades finding the nation’s brightest young students. Every January, seventh- and eighth-graders who score 97 percent or above in standardized math or verbal achievement exams test their skills on the same College Boards that high-school juniors and seniors take. The highest scorers have the opportunity to spend three weeks in the summer at a super camp for the smartest kids in the land.

Daphne’s test scores — 740 in math and 710 in English (out of a possible 800) — would have caught Dr. Stanley’s attention no matter where she lived. But she attended a rural school in one of the most sparsely populated counties in the country. “I was surprised to find such a high score in that isolated place,” he said recently. “Very rare, especially with that family background. The family was poor. Her father didn’t go past the tenth grade. Her mother just finished high school. I wanted to give this unusual girl a chance.”

In his soft Southern voice, Dr. Stanley told Daphne that Johns Hopkins would give her a full scholarship to spend three weeks in Saratoga Springs, New York, living and studying at Skidmore College. A world beyond Aroostook opened for Daphne. For the next two summers Daphne left just before the potato fields were in blossom, immersing herself in literature and science. She tasted her first Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, shopped at her first used-book store, made friends with kids from across the country who did not seem to find her as strange as the kids at home did. She skipped the eighth grade (she would later also skip the tenth) and entered the 256-pupil Hodgdon High School at age 13.

The Maine Sunday Telegram, the state’s largest newspaper, sent a reporter to follow Daphne around for a day. “Her I.Q. is 145, possibly higher, because she exceeded the test scale on some measures,” the story reported. The story spoke of “her hungry mind, always changing and gyrating towards greater complexity.” At age 15 she took the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) again and scored a near perfect 790 in math. Harvard University brought Daphne to Boston and assigned a student from Maine to show her the campus. In December of 1990 Parade magazine, with a circulation of 34 million, featured Daphne in a cover story on child prodigies. The photographer asked Daphne to remove her thick owlish glasses and stood her in a potato field, her head resting lightly on her mother’s shoulder. “Daphne has put New Limerick on the map,” people told Barbara.
Ten years ago when she graduated first in her class of 63, Daphne’s future stretched ahead with the same unblinking promise and optimism she expressed to Parade. “Some days now, Daphne wants to be a physicist,” the story concluded. “Other days a writer … By New Year’s Eve, 1999, Daphne wants to be rich enough to throw a family party. She also intends to win a Nobel Prize. ‘For literature or physics — I don’t know which,’ she says. ‘Maybe I’ll be the first to win it for both.’ ”

I tore out the story about Daphne from Parade more than a decade ago, placed it in a box among other clippings, and forgot about it. Late one November night in 1999, while I sorted through piles of old papers, the story of Daphne caught my eye. “By New Year’s Eve … Nobel Prize.” I called information and the telephone operator said there was one Brinkerhoff listed in New Limerick.

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