CHAMPAIGN — As the school bus bumps along Interstate 74, sunlight from the hazy morning slanting in behind his head, Likith Govindaiah and his friends talk about video games, television shows, scoring on AP tests and what they could mean for your college career, the best burger joints in Champaign-Urbana and how it's a first-world problem if you have trouble getting through the fries to reach your burger.
He and his Champaign Central High teammates are heading to a Scholastic Bowl tournament in Bloomington.
They talk about Nicolas Cage, how he always seems to play the same character in every movie, and Likith complains about the math in the movie "National Treasure."
"Nicolas Cage is so stupid," he says.
The Central team happens to be sharing a bus with the Centennial Scholastic Bowl team, but Likith and his friends ignore the Centennial coach's offers to "run questions" at the front of the bus.
Likith swears he doesn't study much for Scholastic Bowl, but on the bus, a chemistry textbook is open on his lap.
In between the conversation, Likith yawns over the chemistry textbook, then a long, skinny index finger pushes up his rectangular glasses in the right-hand corner.
Likith is realistic, soft-spoken, thoughtful and interested in learning about the world around him.
He knows he's smart, but he doesn't think he's the smartest. He's competitive, but he's careful to remember: "There's always someone better than you."
He's getting used to the idea that he won't always be the best in math and science, that he'll need to collaborate with those who have similar passions in college and beyond. Likith is a senior at Central. He moved to the United States from India at age 6.
Scholastic Bowl is just a small part of Likith's life. He's also the co-captain of Science Olympiad and competes with Central's Math Team and in Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering.
If he told you about all the awards he's won, the times he's placed, the attention he's gotten while competing, you'd be listening a while. He's taken every math and science class at Central possible, and he earned a score of 5 on the AP statistics test, even though he never took the class.
Beyond school and competitions, Likith is passionate about math and science and enjoys board games, video games, logic puzzles, playing tennis and hanging out with his friends, playing Risk and watching movies.
Oh, and it just so happens that Likith scored perfectly on both the ACT and the SAT.
In general, that puts him in about 0.1 percent of students who take the ACT each year. Generally, about 0.022 percent of test takers earn a perfect score on the SAT.
Likith didn't really study for the ACT or any standardized tests: "They're not fun."
He did take some practice tests the week before and studied some grammar, too.
"It wasn't the greatest thing," to earn that perfect 36, he says.
He's a little more proud of the perfect score on the SAT because fewer people take it in the Midwest.
He found the vocabulary on it "really annoying" because you don't use it in everyday speech.
It's early November, and Likith's first-choice college is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He's applying early, and he was surprised that he enjoyed writing the five essays about himself.
"It wasn't as stressful as I thought it would be," he says.
As a student, Likith believes in concentration and careful research.
When he and Science Olympiad partner Rohit Bhonagiri get together on a Sunday morning to prepare to make a boomilever for regional competition, there's no texting, no music playing in the background, not even much talking as they cut balsa wood and measure it carefully, sorting pieces by weight.
Texting or other lack of focus would add time to the task, Likith says, and when it comes to math and science, he's passionate, driven and dedicated to intensive thinking.
On topics less rigorous, though — say, Spanish vocab — he might be more distracted.
In his AP European History class, you might find him reading a book ("Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead," by Tom Stoppard) for AP English.
And in the cafeteria at Bloomington High, when his teammates play their own version of Uno that requires math, Likith does it while browsing a book that promises to be a crash course on U.S. History.
His strategy: to read over what's available, on occasion.
For the first round at the Scholastic Bowl tournament, Central team members make their way to a French classroom. There's a model of a bloody guillotine in the corner.
Likith slouches in his desk, then sits up.
He appears calm but fidgets a bit: He rubs his hands on his jeans, first his right, up and down, then left, the same. And for a moment, both.
He gives a shake of the shoulders, then leans back and crosses his legs at the ankle, his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows.
As the round commences, his left hand holds the plunger — someone unfamiliar with Scholastic Bowl might call it a buzzer — close to his torso while his right holds a pen. He's ready for the questions prefaced by the moderator's instructions: "Pencils and paper ready." At that cue, he's instantly alert, sitting up straight, orange and blue ballpoint poised. If there's a question about science, his team members almost involuntarily turn to look at him.
He's quick with a fist bump to team captain Jane Kanter when she correctly answers a series of questions about Rococo, an artistic movement that began in France in the 18th century.
He's usually even quicker with an answer to questions about math, geometry and physics. Once he once answered a question so quickly, and correctly, the moderator responds, "Wow, yes."
He sometimes scribbles on his paper during questions about literature, art, current events and even Katherine Heigl movies, working out what he calls "random physics."
Later, teams will have to answer a question about Cage, and Likith and his friends share a knowing moment, remembering the conversation on the bus.
During competition, Likith also has the chance to answer a question (correctly) about Richard Feynman, and after that round, pulls a book featuring the physicist's name out of his backpack.
He doesn't always get the answers right. Several times during this tournament, he simply forgets a final step in the calculation — and once he writes down the right answer but says the wrong one.
When the moderator moves on with the next question, he goes back to his calculations, working the problem again until he gets it right.
When he answers a question correctly, he allows himself a tiny fist-pump of joy in his desk.
He's not the tightly coiled competitor you'll find on many good teams, not the nerdy kid who reminds you of a character in a movie.
But yet, when Central loses a close match to Bloomington High on a protest (the debate was whether the Tour de France champion's garb can be called a yellow jacket), he's not happy about it.
Even more unfair is that the dispute is resolved by the Bloomington coach because Bloomington is the host school.
He's a good sport while in the room with his competitors.
But later, he uses a stronger version of the word "bull" to describe the situation.
By February, Likith knows he's been deferred on his early application to MIT. That means he could still get in, but he won't find out until the regular admission time period. In the meantime, he's applied to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and Cal Tech, as well as the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois.
As he applied, he researched online for how to best go about it, in the same way he does for information about Science Olympiad or other competitions.
That experience has taught him the whole "there will always be someone smarter" attitude.
When he was younger, he didn't get into University Laboratory High School in Urbana. He never knew about the Illinois Math and Science Academy until he was well into his own high school career.
His parents never pushed him "super-hard" academically, but there was always the expectation that he'd earn A's. He has a 4.0 unweighted grade-point average.
It's hard to tell, with his years as a high school student coming to a close, if he wishes he'd known about IMSA.
"I enjoyed my experience here," he says.
And even though he's taken every math and science class the school offers, he hasn't found it difficult to learn beyond what's taught there. In addition to college classes, he buys textbooks from Amazon.com and studies them.
"It never felt limiting," he says, of attending Central.
As a junior, he and his team designed a trebuchet like physics teacher Darren Plattner had never seen, with a "simply ingenious" design.
When designing it, Likith wrote a computer program to test various aspects without wasting physical materials.
Most trebuchets that can toss objects long distances are large themselves. But the one Likith's group built was only about 4 feet tall and tossed a golf ball 487 feet. It still holds the current school record by more than 60 feet.
Likith did lots of research as he designed and constructed it.
"It's kind of like other scientific research," he says. "You gather data, experiment and address problems."
At an all-day Scholastic Bowl tournament, it's easy to see Likith takes care with his appearance, perhaps more so than other some students.
His soft brown leather jacket has an attached blue striped hood. Underneath, the bold blue and white stripes of his long-sleeved shirt somehow accentuate his angular shoulders and slim build. A small moose is embroidered on the left front shoulder.
He wears dark jeans — slim, but not skinny — with long square pockets. Under his thin black belt, you can see the "& Fitch" peeking out on the jeans' leather label, and his black and brown leather sneakers feature a Polo Ralph Lauren logo.
It's not that he's overly concerned about clothes, he says, but he doesn't mind defying the stereotype that people who love math and science don't care how they look.
Since having his own income — he's interned at Intel and worked as a student employee at the UI (nine first-semester hours in junior- and senior-level math and physics qualify him as a student there) — he's started shopping at places his parents wouldn't necessarily buy him clothes, like Urban Outfitters and Bergner's.
He never got an allowance — it would be "kind of rude," culturally, to expect one from his parents. He doesn't have a smart phone, either. This comes down to economics for his family, he says.
"The only thing this has really taught me is the common-sense principle that not everyone has money — and that how much money you come from doesn't determine anything about who you are as a person," he says.
By April, Likith knows he didn't get in to MIT. So he's committed to Princeton after a visit there.
He hopes to be a research professor in math.
"It was sad" when he didn't get in to MIT, but he expected rejection because applying for colleges is "a crap shoot."
You don't know what they're looking for when you apply, he says.
"If you have an impressive application, you stand a good chance, but nothing is guaranteed," he says.
The tradition of high school commencement means a lot to a lot of people, Likith says, but never seemed like a huge deal to him.
He believes high schoolers are rewarded for things they should be expected to do. As an institution, he won't miss it. He will miss his friends, though.
He cares about being aware of the world around him, about not living in a bubble. That attitude just leads to ego, to short-sightedness.
He's already looking forward to a collegiate setting, where those researching the same topics will be bound together by similar interests, not by competition or a need to be better than each other.
"I've known that for a long time," he says. "You don't want to go into college with a huge ego."