On May 29, 2015 at approximately 12:16pm in a packed gymnasium, Rohit Yelamanchili was awarded the most prestigious award Terra Linda High School could bestow upon him: Junior of the Year. It was a decision that came as a surprise to the entire class of 2016, given our past winners of Freshman and Sophomore of the Year1, but not a single person in that crowded gymnasium of 1,100 could disagree with the decision; Rohit deserved to be our Junior of the Year. The announcement of his name was met with thunderous applause and as Rohit walked down from his perch in bleachers to the polished wood floor where now-principal Katy Dunlap stood, beaming2, ready to present him with his award, a friend leaned over to me and whispered: “You know, this really is the year of Rohit.” I chuckled and agreed, but Tyler Pruyn was more right at that moment than he, I, or anyone else in that crowded (and overly sweaty) gym could have ever imagined. 2015 was undeniably the year of Rohit: the year his website took off and he was put on multiple shirts3, the year he maintained a 4.87 GPA4 and scored 5’s on almost every AP test he took, the year he made homecoming court and was even asked to prom5. It was the year that Rohit’s relative fame grew to massive heights, the year that his ability was fully realized and he, without his own approval, became cool.
I first met Rohit, like most of our class did, in freshman year. The date was August 26, 2012. The time: 8:10am. It is the third day of school, and Rohit Yelamanchili is sitting in the back of his first period, Algebra 2 Honors, a junior level class known for its brutal workload. Stella Clark, the teacher, is handing back quizzes6 in typical Clarkian fashion, noting the test-takers with exceptionally high scores. There are very few. “Rohit. 100%. A,” she notes and as Rohit stands from his desk and walks the length of the classroom to retrieve his perfect test, the focus of the entire class is on him. It was the first time we really noticed him, that moment when a timid little Indian boy tucked away behind four rows of chairs emerged, only for a picosecond, revealing a flash of brilliance that retreated just as quickly as it had appeared. It was then that we realized that Rohit Yelamanchili was the smartest person in the class.
High school gossip, like bacteria, spreads exponentially. One person spreads it to another person, who spreads it to two more people, and before you have time to enter 2^10 into your calculator, 1,024 people are instantaneous authorities on whatever the latest morsel of juicy truth is. It’s not hard to understand, then, how the zeitgeist surrounding Rohit came to be. In every class he took, just like in Algebra 2, people began to notice this brilliant, enigmatic kid named Rohit. What he did outside of school helped further this mythos of the introverted genius even further—by the time he finished sophomore year, Rohit had taken 5 AP tests7 and was concurrently enrolled at College of Marin, taking classes in psychology, astronomy8, programming, and economics “mostly for fun”. He spent his freshman summer at a UC Davis math camp9 and attended a Stanford summer artificial intelligence camp the following year.
“Does it ever put too much pressure on you?” I asked Rohit. His gaze drifts down to the floor. It’s obvious he’s never thought about this. You can almost see his mind whirring, thinking of an answer. “I don’t know,” he finally replies after a long pause. I try again. “Do you ever worry what people think of you?” Again, Rohit considers this question with the utmost care. “Sometimes. When sharing my thoughts,” he says in a measured tone. “People expect me in class to say something smart.”
Rohit’s right. Somewhere along his high school career, he moved from just the smart Indian kid in the back of the class to something more, a tall tale, the closest approximation we have to a Terra Linda legend. The rumors that engulfed him perpetuated an impossible level of superhuman intelligence—it was said that Rohit got 6’s on all his AP tests. And people believed it.1011 It’s easy for the outside observer to scoff at this and deride Rohit’s peers as puerile, but they aren’t: some of Terra Linda’s finest, students with 4.0+’s and fantastic test scores, believed these stories. They believed them precisely because they only knew him as smart, not as a fully complex human being. It seems that while everyone knows of Rohit, nobody really knows Rohit.
In my interviews, the two most frequently used words TL students used to describe Rohit were “intelligent” and “mysterious”. Everyone knew he was smart, but no one really knew much about him beyond that. “He never seems to be without direction,” sophomore Gabby Carrade told me. “I imagine his room being organized very nicely and him just knowing what to do all the time.” Senior Aspen Adams concurred, noting that Rohit “probably studies” in his free time. Will Morris, also a senior, characterized Rohit as the “kind of person who likes being productive and doesn’t waste time” If Rohit was a superhero, Morris quipped, he’d be “Captain Productive”.
All three of them are wrong. Rohit Yelamanchili is not a hard worker. In fact, he spends most of his free time “sleeping, playing video games12, or sometimes just sitting and thinking.” He’s a procrastinator by his own admission, who studies only when he has to and never for very long. He is most definitely not organized. Rohit doesn’t even think he’s smart. “I’m just good at taking tests,” Rohit would repeatedly tell me. “I don’t think I’m smarter than anyone else.” As one of the students who believed he was a legitimate genius, this was crushing—the Terra Linda equivalent of meeting the Wizard of Oz or learning that your favorite actor is actually a terrible person.
So now we’re presented with a perplexing paradox.13 How can one be both immensely lazy and yet so accomplished at the same time? Rohit doesn’t have the answer. “I don’t know,” he told me. The dichotomy between effort and grades that Rohit presents is alarming. We need Rohit to be a genius who works like he’s always running out of time, because without this, hard work means nothing. Rohit is proof that your parents lied to you, that you can’t be whatever you want to be when you grow up if you work hard enough, because there will always be someone just naturally smarter, who can put in less effort with better results.
Thankfully, much better philosophers than I have attempted to answer such questions about life, the universe, and our place within this mess we call the human condition. But the answer to our questions lies with none of them and is instead found in the most unlikeliest of places: a physics classroom. As beloved14 physics teacher Craig Eldred will explain to any who asks, everything in the universe is moving: the earth is moving at 66,600 miles an hour around a sun that moves 492,126 miles an hour around a galaxy in a universe that is constantly expanding. However, we don’t feel any of this because our reference frame is here on earth. And just like space, reference frames can be applied to people as well. In the reference frame of Terra Linda, Rohit is the genius we need him to be. He works hard, does his homework, and aces all his tests partly because his propensity for knowledge is greater than everyone else’s but also because he puts in a significant amount of effort. However, in Rohit’s frame of reference, he is competing with other high schoolers who work a lot harder and are a lot smarter than him, students who have developed a cheap way to detect early pancreatic cancer or built 30 million dollar apps.15 By comparison, he is lazy and unintelligent. But more importantly, Rohit is biased. The reason why he thinks it’s “weird” and “undeserved” when he’s videoed eating lunch or showered in money16 is because he’s never stepped out of his own reference frame to see what he looks like to other people. Simultaneously, we call him humble when Rohit genuinely believes he is not smart. Is one frame more correct than another? I’m not sure. We can draw wildly different conclusions from the same base set of data depending on how we choose to look at it, which probably says more about the rest of us at Terra Linda than it does about Rohit.
- Julia Wilson and Liam Goff, respectively. While both were just as deserving of the awards they received as Rohit, they are both markedly different from him. ↩︎
- She had obviously played a large role in the selection process. ↩︎
- Neither of which, unfortunately, were made. His sweatshirt design met a similar fate. ↩︎
- Rohit’s junior courseload: AP Statistics, AP Calculus BC, AP Physics C, AP English Language, AP US History, Honors Spanish 3, and Wind Ensemble. Wind Ensemble was the one class that kept him from a 5.0. ↩︎
- Jackie Helbig, Rohit’s date, on the experience: “[He was] very reserved, but his tie was straight fire, so I’d say pretty good out of pretty good.” ↩︎
- Ms. Clark was the type of teacher that gave quizzes on the first week of school. ↩︎
- AP Computer Science A – 5 (2013), AP Chemistry – 5 (2014), AP Physics B – 5 (2014), AP Macroeconomics – 5 (2014), and AP Microeconomics – 4 (2014). AP Chemistry was the only AP class he had taken at this point, the other four he self-studied for. ↩︎
- He also took the companion astronomy lab class. ↩︎
- While there, Rohit wrote about the Chinese Remainder Theorem. This happens to be one of the top Google results for “Rohit Yelamanchili“. ↩︎
- He didn’t—AP tests are scored from 1 to 5. This particular rumor started when Espen Scheuer “repeatedly” told Inès Guéneau that Rohit got a 6. Scheuer later said, “I’ll never forget the day I walked into physics to hear Inès trying to convince Jackie that Rohit got a 6. I’ve never been more proud.” ↩︎
- A more fringe rumor accounted to me by Taren Bouwman: “Rohit is a plant from the government to raise the average test score so the USA can compete with China and upon finishing high school is sent to another school to continuously keep the national average up.” This rumor did not catch on quite like the one about Rohit being the real 6 God did; Terra Linda students are less gullible than one might suspect. ↩︎
- His favorite video games? Skyrim, League of Legends, Sid Meier’s Civilization 5, and Hearthstone. ↩︎
- Okay, technically the paradox is not presented to us unless we choose to confront it. Many people have chosen not to address the apparent dichotomies around them. This, however, is a cop-out, the philosophical equivalent to sticking your fingers in your ears and refusing to listen to anything around you. Like Sisyphus, we must accept that life is full of contradictions. ↩︎
- He is so beloved, in fact, that both his former and current students will simply refer to him as “Craig”. ↩︎
- Or, better yet, students who have created apps that fund cancer research. ↩︎
- This vine is probably the single reason why Rohit won the “Most Likely to be a Millionaire” senior superlative. ↩︎