When 11-year-old Amy Lim appeared in professor Ron Lanyi’s English class at Pasadena City College, he didn’t think anything of it.
“I assumed that she was somebody’s child,” he said, explaining that the skinny girl with pigtails and a pink rolling backpack didn’t cross his mind as a potential student.
At that point, Amy was one of six students hoping to claim the last available spot in his class.
Lanyi opted to grant the space to the winner of an essay competition, asking the hopeful students to write about their ideal professions, based on their interests and abilities. It was only after he announced the winning submission that he realized who wrote it.
Ever since, the “mind boggling” fifth-grader from La Crescenta has risen to the top of the course, he said.
“I’ve really never seen anything quite like this,” the 40-year college English instructor said.
Amy and her parents don’t know exactly how she has separated from her peers, young and old.
It might have been a regular regimen of reading, combined with minimal exposure to commercial television, said her dad, Vincent Lim, an attorney.
Or perhaps it was the Harry Potter audio books that Amy plays daily while taking showers and getting ready for bed, she said.
But most of all, it has probably been her interest in challenging herself when regular fifth-grade material hasn’t risen to the task, she said.
“I didn’t want my brain to get all lazy, and I wanted to keep learning,” Amy said of her decision to enroll at Pasadena City College. She hopes to build up enough college credit and other qualifications to soon meet university application requirements.
“I really want to go to UCLA,” she said.
Lanyi watched with fascination during a recent class session as Amy worked in a group with students more than twice her age. Her high-pitched voice sliced through the murmurs in the room as she identified contrastive and independent clauses for her peers.
“She’s obviously the leader,” he said. “She’s the one making all the decisions, and the others are coming around to her way of thinking.”
Four hours earlier, Amy was sitting alongside giggly classmates at Dunsmore Elementary School.
She waited patiently as her peers scribbled through workbook pages she had completed months in advance.
Teacher Larry McMullen asked students to identify what syllable of words like “population” should be stressed, reading back options like “POP-u-la-tion,” “pop-U-la-tion,” or “pop-u-LA-tion.”
Amy spent most of the time organizing her desk or doodling with markers.
Mobiles hung from a ceiling fan and dioramas and projects on poster-boards crowded the walls.
Students said Amy seemed to stand out from the rest of the class.
“She uses big words,” 10-year-old Haley Tsarofski said, adding that Amy’s writing seemed to have a unique quality.
“She’s expressing how she feels really well,” Haley said.
McMullen had been most impressed by Amy’s poetry, which exhibited a unique maturity that distinguished her work from that of her classmates, he said.
“I knew from the very beginning that she was just an exceptional student,” he said.
Walking home from school, Amy rolled her backpack along a sidewalk as her friends talked about the Jonas Brothers and their favorite “American Idol” contestants.
“She doesn’t keep up with that stuff,” 11-year-old Sydnee Wells said of Amy, who prefers climbing trees with friends over TV time.
Amy’s parents knew she was smart, but didn’t know she was already college material until she recently decided she was ready for the jump.
She had read “Millicent Min, Girl Genius,” a story about an 11-year-old girl who attends college classes, which inspired her to take a similar step in her own life, she said.
Since then she has produced essays for her college class that have left Lim questioning whether Amy received more than just the genes that turned his father and brothers into engineers and doctors.
“I sometimes scratch my head and wonder how did she come out this way,” he said.