Nine-year-old author Denim didn’t just sit down one day at his home in the quaint Northern New Mexico community of Dixon and decide to pen his thoughts on the birth of the universe and his theories on black holes.
The quantum physics guide he published last year, at the age of 8, was the culmination of a yearslong pursuit of learning. He says he can still recall how it all began one day when he was 2 1/2 and attending a baby shower. The hostess gave each child a toy dinosaur and he was fascinated by his tiny Tyrannosaurus rex. “I was like, ‘What is this thing? I need to know!’ ”
And after learning about dinosaurs, he said, he learned about the asteroid that struck what is now Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula some 65 million years ago and wiped them out. (Actually, he pointed out, it was closer to 65.5 million years.) “And then I was like — asteroids. I want to learn about asteroids.”
And it snowballed. He wanted to know about the solar system and the universe and stars and atoms. “And that’s quantum physics,” he said.
Denim, a fifth-grader in his first year at Taos Academy charter school, recently caught the attention of Republican Rep. Jason Harper of Rio Rancho, a chemical engineer — and not just because of the author’s extraordinary scientific endeavor of writing and publishing How Relative is Relativity? An 8-year-old’s Guide to Quantum Physics. Denim also is becoming a young spokesman about the challenges of dyslexia — a learning disorder that affects millions of Americans.
Harper invited Denim to the Capitol last week, where he was honored on the House floor with a proclamation congratulating him and acknowledging his accomplishments as a “twice exceptional” student — he is both gifted and dyslexic — and noting, above all, that he “delights everyone with his wonderful, sarcastic humor.”
It was a whirlwind day at the Capitol for Denim, who was thoroughly bushed during an interview afterward. He had met with Speaker of the House Don Tripp, R-Socorro, ahead of his congrats on the House floor. And afterward, he was whisked to the Fourth Floor, where he met with Gov. Susana Martinez.
“That was really amazing,” said his mother, Michele Padberg, who had escorted Denim to the Capitol, along with his father, Jesse Padberg.
“We were thinking it would be a very quick photo op, a shake of the hand, and that’s it,” Michele Padberg said. Instead, the governor spent about 10 minutes with the family, learning about Denim. “She was so impressed with him. … We got lots of pictures and lots hugs.”
Later, the family was taken on a tour of the Capitol, where Denim got to learn the ins and the outs of how a bill becomes a law — and probably a little about the political battles that prevent bills from becoming laws.
It was a lot of excitement for a kid who spends most of his time in quiet little Dixon, where his parents own and operate the Vivac Winery.
As a fifth-grader at the Taos Academy — he started school young and skipped a grade — Denim attends classes at the campus two days a week and then works at his own pace throughout the rest of the week completing computer-based assignments. It’s a perfect setup for him. If he finds that a lesson is too easy, he can simply test out of the material and move on.
He’s thriving, his mother said. His experience at the Taos charter school is a far cry from his years in public school, where he was “languishing.”
His mother doesn’t blame the staff at Dixon Elementary School for Denim’s struggles there. Neither does he. His intelligence and dyslexia can be confusing for teachers, they said. On one hand, Denim was an advanced student, forming his own theories on things like the impending death of the universe. On the other hand, he sometimes couldn’t tell the difference between a Z and an S. “And I kept flipping B’s and D’s,” he said.
He’s great at math, but timed math tests? A nightmare, he said.
Denim isn’t embarrassed about his dyslexia, and he knows he’s not alone. The disorder likely affects far more people than those who are diagnosed and treated — estimates range from 5 percent to nearly 20 percent of the population. Kids and adults with a minor form of the condition usually don’t know it. They are often the people with Facebook posts full of spelling errors, and those who sometimes confuse their right hand from their left or can’t remember the directions to friend’s house.
Asked if it was hard to be dyslexic while also trying to learn about subject matter way beyond his age level, Denim was a little stumped. “I wouldn’t say it’s not hard … I would not say it is …”
He paused, frustrated that he couldn’t find the right word. But it wasn’t dyslexia getting in the way. He was just searching for one perfect word to express that the disorder doesn’t hinder his ability to explore, discover and progress.
“I feel there should be a one-word way to say that,” he said with a laugh.
Then he said, “I actually feel like it’s helpful.”
Even his mom was a little surprised by that.
But then again, she said, it made sense. Dyslexia helps give Denim a “unique perspective on the world.” It is associated with his puzzle-solving skills and his creativity.
And although it influenced his bookmaking process, it didn’t cloud the ideas that went into How Relative is Relativity?
Denim dictated much of the book to his parents, who handled the typing. His mother emphasized that the work was entirely his own thoughts, his own research and in his words.
The book was self-published through KidPub Press, and the editing process, Denim said, was long and grueling. He rolled his eyes as he recalled the endless back-and-forth. And there was a near disaster, he said, when an error slipped into his copy. He was referring to a group of 18 elements, and the number was changed to 118. Clearly, that was incorrect, he said, because there are only 118 total known elements. Thankfully, that mistake didn’t get in print.
The exhaustive editing process hasn’t stopped him from pursuing a new book project. But a warning to his readers: He takes a big genre leap in this one. It’s a novel — a horror story, actually — about a girl named Emma who also is twice exceptional.
Is she the heroine or the victim?
Denim was mum on details, but he did offer this glimpse into his frightful literary venture: Yes, Emma will be a target of an unnamed villain. “But there are no heroes.”
Denim learned when he was making his first book that you have to be careful not to reveal too much. Shortly after he crafted an explanation of one of his thoughts on black holes about a year ago, he said, Stephen Hawking came out with a similar theory. Denim shook his fists in the air: “He stole my theory!”
Contact Cynthia Miller at (505) 986-3095 or [email protected].