By Megan Kawasaki
Heading to his seventh period science class, Larry Zhang ’14 strolls up to Munger 101, earbuds in and hands shoved into the pockets of his sweatshirt. His teacher, Yanni Vourgourakis, is already inside, having placed a neat stack of graded tests on the table behind him. Zhang sits in his spot in the second row and tosses his binder and pencil case onto his desk. Slowly, other students trickle in, the majority groaning when they see the pile of graded papers up front.
Vourgourakis smirks as he hands out the exams, causing a full spectrum of emotions to appear on the 12 faces in the class.
“How did Larry do?” someone eagerly calls out, just as the test lands on his desk.
“He did fine,” Vourgourakis says. “Almost a hundred.”
“Ugh, sophomore!” another shouts.
The ensuing laughter digresses into genuine compliments, all while Zhang simply stays quiet and studies his nearly perfect test, looking embarrassed but proud.
This class is AP Physics B, a science course typically taken by juniors and seniors. Zhang is one of three sophomores, including his twin brother, Kevin, who are enrolled in the course this year. To his classmates, that makes him both a genius and occasionally the target of grade-related teasing.
“They’re just joking,” Larry said with a shy laugh. “It’s never anything mean-spirited.”
In the sixth grade, Kevin and Larry started working with private tutors from various programs such as A* and Math Zoom. Neither ever struggled in their classes at Suzanne Middle School, but both studied more at the encouragement of their parents to try out for the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad.
Before Harvard-Westlake, the two had never taken advanced math courses, but after performing well on placement tests, they entered a precalculus class as freshmen. This is the first year, though, that they are taking accelerated courses with upperclassmen.
“At first I thought that it would be rather awkward, but I figured I could make some friends with the people in my classes, and that’s what ended up happening,” Larry said.
While Larry is gregarious, Kevin is more introverted, only interacting with the juniors and seniors if he needs to find a lab partner, Kevin admits.
“The seniors are actually quite nice,” Kevin said. “I just mostly keep to myself though.”
Both Kevin and Larry are the lone sophomores in their physics classes, but in their AP Calculus BC 11 classes, they are two of many, which helped them settle in more easily.
“It’s half juniors and half sophomores, so it helped going into the class because I already had friends there, unlike in physics,” Larry said.
The twins said their teachers rarely keep an eye on their progress. Both enjoy the rigor that comes with learning the advanced topics just like the upperclassmen.
“My classes at public school were not difficult, but here they are definitely a bit more challenging, which I enjoy,” Larry said.
Larry is one of the top students in Vourgourakis’ physics classes.
“I have had very few sophomores in my junior and senior classes, but they seem well-placed, and they do well in them,” Vourgourakis said. “These aren’t kids who are just smart. They seem a bit more emotionally developed, so they know that it’s going to be a challenge, and they appear ready for it.”
Vourgourakis doesn’t notice a major difference between his sophomores and the rest of his students, since they tend to demonstrate high levels of maturity for their age, he said.
“I don’t feel like I teach Larry,” he said. “To be honest, he just sits there, does his work, and occasionally he’ll ask a question, but I don’t need to help him at all.
Math teacher Kevin Weis, who teaches one sophomore, Aaron Anderson ’14 in Advanced Seminar in Mathematics Honors, agrees. He said Anderson is extremely prepared for and interested in the challenging work and that he is easily keeping up with the rest of the students.
“He’s one of the best students in the class,” Weis said. “He seems to fit in fairly well, and he keeps up with the work just fine. We even have long conversations after class often that go beyond what we were talking about in class.”
Anderson made a name for himself at the Middle School for taking accelerated math courses far beyond the norm. Starting in the fourth grade, his parents bought computer programs for him through which he could learn abstract mathematical concepts. With an understanding of math up to trigonometry, Anderson began advancing two years ahead of the normal math curriculum at his elementary school.
“In sixth grade, I was doing calculus in the back of the geometry class on a computer,” Anderson said.
After he matriculated from the Mirman School, Anderson was put into a precalculus class as a sophomore, three years ahead of the normal math track. Having exhausted the Middle School’s resources, he took online classes on linear algebra and multivariable calculus before taking Advanced Seminar with seniors and juniors.
“We still haven’t gotten to where I had left off last year, but it is nice to have a teacher again,” Anderson said. “Thankfully, the class goes off on random tangents where we talk about things I’ve never learned.”
The upperclassmen in Advanced Seminar respect Anderson for holding his own in the difficult class.
“He’s pretty mature for a kid of his age. Most of the class is pretty amazed,” Hannah Schoen ’12 said. “There’s always the thought that he’s much younger than us and that it’s a bit intimidating, but for the most part, we’ re mostly over it. He’s just a part of the dynamic and part of the group. He’s well-qualified and that’s great.”
The same sentiment exists in Larry’s AP Physics B class. Gus Woythaler ’12 doesn’t mind having the younger student in his class and said there is mutual respect.
“He’s keeping up with us academically, if not surpassing us,” Woythaler said. “He’s in that class for a reason. Students can get a little miffed when he gets his very high test scores, but in the long run, the whole ‘rivalry’ between the sophomore and the rest of the upperclassmen is really in good spirits. I think he adds a fun dynamic to the class.”
His sophomore status has not impacted how Zhang saw his classmates.
“I don’t make any major distinctions between 10th, 11th and 12th graders,” Zhang said. “I just treat them as regular friends.”