MEET A REAL-LIFE 11-YEAR-OLD DOOGIE HOWSER Masoud, now a college junior with an A average, will finish med school in 5 1/2 years -- provided his cash-strapped parents can afford it.
(MONEY Magazine) – It's a languid summer day at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif., and the 25 students in Mr. Nasby's second-year calculus class would rather be working on their tans than learning about double integrals and antiderivatives. Everyone, that is, except Masoud Karkehabadi. By far the youngest class member at age 11, Masoud stares intently at the board blanketed with equations. When Nasby asks for ''the derivative of e to the xy with respect to y,'' the boy blurts out, ''x times e to the xy,'' while other students either scribble in their notebooks or suffer cranial gridlock. Nobody can blame them for feeling like dodos. Once again, ''the kid'' has the answer. Sitting in the front row beside his full-time governess Jacqueline Paige, 27, Masoud looks like what he is: a half-Iranian, half-Latino, all-American boy. When not in class, he likes to climb trees, play Nintendo with his normally bright brother Ahmad, 7, or pet his foot-long iguana Abi. But Masoud is also a child prodigy with a photographic memory and an IQ of 200-plus. Anyone over 180 is considered a genius; Masoud's chart-busting score makes him one in a million. Talk about total recall: He can watch a movie once, then re-enact every bit of dialogue and sound effects. No wonder he graduated from Orange Coast last May with a 3.7 grade point average (the calculus was a summer extra). Now he's a junior biology major at the University of California at Irvine (he got into UCLA too, but Irvine was closer), doing labwork on Parkinson's disease and planning to go to medical school next year and become a neurosurgeon. At this rate, Masoud may earn his M.D. before he gets his driver's license, just like the make-believe 19-year-old doctor on ABC's Doogie Howser, M.D. In fact, he's quite candid about that goal: ''I want to be the real Doogie, sir,'' he says, in his polite, rather formal manner. ''God gave me a gift and made me smart. I want to help people.'' Masoud's dad, Mahmoud (''Mike''), 35, a car salesman, and his mother Alejandra, 31, a homemaker, are still slightly awestruck by their gifted son. ''We had doctors and engineers in our family,'' says Mike, a former Iranian F-14 pilot who immigrated here 13 years ago, ''but never any geniuses.'' Adds his Mexican-American wife: ''I didn't do anything special during my pregnancy. People somehow think it was something I ate.'' Having a prodigy is both a blessing and a burden, though. Unlike most parents, who have 18 years to save for their children's education, the Karkehabadis may face medical school bills in 18 months. Irvine isn't costing anything, since the school gave Masoud a $3,765 scholarship that pays for tuition, books and fees. But Irvine officials say they cannot find grants to cover even half the $17,000 cost of attending their med school. And if Masoud were to go to Harvard Med instead, his bills will shoot up to $33,800 a year. Meanwhile, because Masoud is too young to be independent, the Karkehabadis are paying Jacqueline about $1,500 a month to be his constant companion on school days. Add another $650 a month for the two-bedroom apartment near campus where she and Masoud stay during the week, and $240 more for the 1991 Mazda she drives him around in, and you see why the family is $13,000 in debt and running $700 a month in the red (see the summary on page 97). Yet Mike, who will gross $100,000 this year as the top salesman at Elmore Toyota in Westminster, isn't worried. A potent combination of affability and hustle, he's too busy chasing the next buck to worry where the last one went. His lifestyle reflects it: He drives a 1980 Porsche 928 (value: $14,000), dresses like a GQ model with as much as $1,000 a month in new clothes, and drops an unreimbursed $6,000 a year on entertainment and freebies for customers. ''In my trade,'' he says, ''if you don't look good, you don't make the sale.'' Mike's freewheeling style threatens his family's finances, though. Last year, faced with mounting medical bills for his 65-year-old widowed mother, Esmat Karkehabadi, who lives with them and has a heart condition, Mike cut back the withholding from his paychecks. Result: He underpaid his 1991 taxes and still owes $4,500, which he is paying off at $400 a month. Esmat's medicines cost $200 monthly; her calls to Tehran have pushed the family phone bill to $550 some months. With expenses like those, the Karkehabadis have neither savings nor life or disability insurance on Mike. Now they need advice on how to pay for their son's education without neglecting other responsibilities. They want to know how fast Masoud should % advance in his studies, given the fact that -- emotionally, at least -- he's still 11 years old. And they wonder whether he might capitalize on his growing fame by doing TV commercials for education-related products. ''We don't want to push him,'' says Mom. ''He shouldn't do anything just for money.'' Adds his proud dad: ''We just want to find some way to finance his education.'' The Karkehabadis had no idea their 7 3/4-pound baby was anything special when he arrived on June 6, 1981. Since Masoud was their firstborn, they weren't surprised when he started talking in complete sentences at 12 months. They perked up, though, when he started reciting the lyrics to music videos, word for word, at 18 months. By age two, Masoud was devising programs on his home computer. At three he started giving his father highway directions from his baby car seat. Schooling? There wasn't a class that could keep up with him as he plowed through encyclopedia articles, remembering all he read. Once, on a fishing trip at age six, he took one look at a fish his father caught and identified it as a black sea bass -- protected under California law. Masoud told his dad to throw the fish back. Marvels Mike: ''I looked it up later, and he was right.'' With permission from the local schools, the Karkehabadis hired tutors at $650 a month and taught Masoud at home. At age seven, when he would normally have been in second grade, he passed his high school equivalency test with a perfect score. The next logical step was college, of course. Masoud had yearned to be a doctor since age four, when his favorite game was listening to his father's heart with a toy stethoscope. ''I want to study the human brain,'' he told anyone who'd listen. ''It's the least understood organ in the body.'' But Mike and Alejandra worried about how he would be treated on campus. They kept him at home, reading and working with tutors, until the fall of 1990, when he enrolled in Mount San Antonio College, a state-supported community college near their former home east of Los Angeles. (Masoud never took the Scholastic Aptitude Test, but he finished the school's hour-long math placement test in 10 minutes.) Some students did call him a freak at first. ''But when I offered to help them with their homework,'' reports Masoud, ''they changed their attitude.'' Hearing how he'd silenced the taunters, his parents relaxed. ''The worst punishment we could have inflicted on him,'' says Mike, ''would have been to tell him he couldn't go to school.'' Still, educating a neurosurgeon promised to be expensive. The schools weren't the problem: Both Mount San Antonio and Orange Coast, where he transferred last January, cost less than $100 per semester. But since Alejandra was too busy with Esmat and brother Ahmad to take Masoud to class, the family needed a governess. They hired Jacqueline, a friend of Mike's sister who soon became like a family member. But counting salary, car and apartment, employing her costs $2,390 a month. That would be all right if the Karkehabadis didn't have so many other bills. Even before Masoud entered college, Mike had sent $5,000 to Iranian relatives recovering from the big June 1990 earthquake. That October, the Karkehabadis bought their $142,000 three-bedroom Laguna Hills townhouse, putting down 20% and financing the rest with an 8% adjustable-rate mortgage (monthly payments: $1,100). Then came $5,000 in renovation bills, followed by Esmat's heart problems, a tonsillectomy for Ahmad and a bout of tendinitis for Alejandra. Mike borrowed $10,000 from his sister and still had to work 14 hours a day to get by. There was another possible source of dough, though. Mount San Antonio had put out a press release about the ''real-life Doogie Howser,'' and reporters from as far away as Tokyo descended on Masoud to ask questions like ''Do you have enough time to play?'' Answer: ''Yes, but sometimes I'd rather read a book.'' To his parents' relief, Masoud performed like a veteran. He charmed cynical journalists yet was discreet enough not to reveal that he had spent lab time with a 300-pound human cadaver nicknamed Uncle Buck. He even stayed cool when L.A.'s Channel 9 News laid a trap for him by having a medical professor quiz him on the air. Sample: ''Where is the proximal humerus?'' Reply: ''The upper arm.'' Masoud passed. The Karkehabadis decided to call Bob Preston, a Hollywood talent agent they found through the Screen Actors Guild. As head of the Youth Division of Cunningham Escott Dipene & Associates, he screens 200 child actors a month and signs maybe five. Masoud became one. ''In less than three minutes, he not only memorized his lines from a script,'' Preston explains, ''he memorized my lines too. For an actor, that's valuable.'' Preston said there was no way to know whether Masoud would someday command $5 million a picture, like child star Macaulay Culkin of the current Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, or whether he'd be among the 80% of actors who make + less than $5,000 a year. But he had to be ready to commute 40 miles to L.A. four or five times a week for auditions. No, thanks, said Masoud. Not even the promise of riches could lure him away from his books. ''I don't want to play a doctor,'' he explains patiently. ''I want to be one.'' But he did make time for a recent Arsenio Hall Show appearance, earning about $300. The theory was that the publicity might help land him a deal to appear in commercials for educational products like computers or encyclopedias. Typical fee: $7,000 to $10,000 a spot. Even if no deals come through (and none have so far), he won't be any worse off than most medical students -- 78% of whom are in debt (average: $55,000) by the time they graduate. Provided Masoud gets into medical school, he will be eligible -- with Mike as cosignatory -- for federal loans at adjustable interest rates 3.25 percentage points higher than the one-year T-bill rate (recently 3.45%). To prepare for that day, Masoud has already opened his first bank account, complete with a picture of Bugs Bunny on his checks. The question now is, how much will the Karkehabadis be willing and able to chip in? ''We've got to figure out a way to educate a kid like this,'' Mike says. ''With his brain, he's definitely going to pay society back.''
THE ADVICE Cut unnecessary expenses. Vicki Schultz, a fee-only financial adviser with Schultz & Schultz in Irvine, told the Karkehabadis they were spending too much. They could save $500 a month by paring discretionary items like Mike's wardrobe and restaurant bills and Esmat's phone calls. If Mike must be a snappy dresser, she said, ''shop smart: Nordstrom has some really good sales.'' Get help with Esmat. Since Mike's mother is 65 years old, has been in the U.S. for more than six years and has no income, Schultz added that she may be eligible for the special federal-state Qualified Medicare Beneficiary program that picks up virtually 100% of medically necessary expenses. She can find out about the program, which is available nationwide, by calling the nearest office of her state health department. She might also be eligible for $482 a month under California's version of the federal Supplemental Security Income program. Provide for the family's security. As the Karkehabadis' sole provider, Mike needs life and disability insurance. Schultz recommended a $500,000, 15-year level-term life policy from Transamerica costing $645 a year. She also proposed a long-term disability policy (price: roughly $1,400 annually) that would pay him 60% of his income through age 65 should he be disabled. Search out specialized scholarships. James Miles, financial aid director for Irvine's med school, suggested the family tap into a computer data base called College Aid Sources for Higher Education (or CASHE; 800-662-6275) that is available through UCI and 970 other schools nationwide. ''It includes information on more than 14,000 scholarships, fellowships, loans, grants, internships and work/ study programs,'' he said. When MONEY plugged Masoud's profile into CASHE, it spit out nearly two dozen possibilities -- including a National Institutes of Health research grant that pays tuition, supplies, travel and an $8,800-a-year stipend for unusually bright students who are pursuing a joint M.D./Ph.D. degree. Consider dropping Masoud as a dependent on your taxes. Once a student enters graduate school, his parents can stop claiming him as a dependent. That would cost the Karkehabadis the standard $2,300 exemption -- a $644-a-year saving in their 28% tax bracket. But because his dad's salary would no longer count as part of his income, Masoud would be eligible for need-based loans and grants that could cover the full cost -- tuition and living expenses -- of attending med school. Remember, he's still a boy. Psychologist Linda Kreger Silverman, who runs the Gifted Child Development Center in Denver, praised his parents for encouraging Masoud's education. Being in college won't necessarily hurt his social development, she said. ''It is utter nonsense that gifted people can only make friends with people their own age.'' But she warned them that Masoud still has the emotional needs of an 11-year-old: They must continue to let him indulge in boyish pursuits like video games. And because gifted children are often perfectionists, Masoud should be given opportunities to relax -- perhaps by expressing himself through art or music. ''Too much media attention could be destructive,'' she warned, ''if it makes him think he's valued only for doing remarkable things.'' Bright children need to feel they're cherished regardless of whether or not they're superachievers, she said, or else they'll live in fear of making mistakes.
After meeting the advisers, Mike put his Porsche up for sale, cut back on clothes and meals and planned to apply for government help for Esmat. Life and disability insurance, though, will have to wait ''until we're out of the hole.'' As for Masoud, Mike and Alejandra plan to let the boy decide for himself how fast he progresses in school and how much media exposure he gets. After all, jokes Mike, ''we're supporting him now, but in nine years, who knows, he could be supporting us.''
BOX: RUNNING IN THE RED
The Karkehabadis' hefty spending on child care, autos and clothing leaves the family roughly $700 short every month, a deficit that they were able to make up last year by taking a loan from Mike's sister.
INCOME Mike's salary $100,000 Loan from sister 10,000 TOTAL $110,000
OUTGO Child care $18,000 Income taxes 7,681 Autos, insurance, gas 14,400 Mortgage 13,200 Clothing 12,000 Medical expenses 8,000 Food 7,200 Utilities 6,000 Vacations 6,000 Entertainment 4,500 Furniture and appliances 3,600 Repairs 3,000 Charities 2,500 Miscellaneous 2,300 TOTAL $118,381
ASSETS House $142,000 Personal property 20,000 Cars 19,500 Checking account 5,000 TOTAL $186,500
LIABILITIES Mortgage $113,600 Loans 10,000 Back taxes 4,500 Charge-account balance 3,000 TOTAL $131,100
NET WORTH $55,400