The life of Promethea Pythaitha has the makings of a Greek myth.
Born with incredible intellectual gifts, Promethea started reading at age 1, was learning college-level calculus at age 7 and was hailed on national TV as a child genius. At 13 she became the youngest student ever to complete work for a bachelor's degree at Montana State University, and at 14 she graduated with a diploma in mathematics.
In the four years since, Promethea's life has been full of drama. She gave a controversial speech in 2007 publicly criticizing the Greek Orthodox Church, which brought her notoriety, condemnation and praise from Chicago to Athens.
Shortly after, Promethea survived a highway accident that nearly killed her mother. She has been a crucial witness in her mother's court battles with their neighbors. And now she is helping her mother n who at age 55 is seven months pregnant n prepare for the birth of a new sibling.
Through it all, Promethea, 18, has kept working to advance her education at MSU. Her mother works cleaning houses, and they've often struggled to come up with money for tuition. Generous benefactors have stepped in to help.
Promethea has set heroic goals for herself n to help solve humanity's biggest problems.
Sitting last week in a lounge at MSU's Engineering and Physical Science building, Promethea and her mother, Georgia Smith, talked about the extraordinary young woman's struggles and dreams.
"I'd like to use the science I'm studying to cure diseases like diabetes, cancer and AIDS," Promethea said. "I'd like to find a way to clean up pollution on the planet. I'd also like to see us develop a clean form of energy."
Wearing an oversized, wine-dark shirt, blue jeans and no makeup, her dark hair straight down her back, Promethea looks pretty much like any college student. She speaks with a mild version of her mother's Greek accent, and her words tend to spill out rapidly, as if ideas are bursting out of her head.
Promethea's academic plan is unorthodox.
Instead of the usual path of picking one field and progressing from a bachelor's degree to a master's and a doctorate, she wants to earn a basketful of bachelor's degrees n physics in 2010, computer science in 2011, statistics and chemistry in 2012. After that, electrical and computer engineering and biology and biochemistry.
Then she wants to pursue Ph.D.s. Her ultimate plan is to go to Japan to study nanotechnology and a kind of advanced computing called fuzzy logic.
Asked if she may be spreading herself too thin to achieve her lofty goals, Promethea said studying many fields only increases her understanding.
"When you have more than one perspective, it's very powerful," she said.
Lately she said she has enjoyed studying particle physics and special relativity, and has done research on neutron stars.
MSU, where she has a 3.87 grade point average, has given her an "excellent" education, she said. She speaks highly of her physics professors, Bennett Link, Carla Riedel and John Carlsten, her advisor.
"She is certainly an unusual student with a deep passion for learning and an incredible capacity to grasp more knowledge than any student I have ever seen," Carlsten wrote in an e-mail. "I expect she will know when the time is right for her to specialize in her choice of field.
"In the meantime, she is like one in a candy store, enjoying so many delicious choices and a strong desire to try them all. Whatever path or paths she eventually chooses, I am confident she will enjoy the journey and accomplish wonderful things in her life."
Bennett agreed, calling Promethea "one of the most talented and dedicated students I've ever seen."
"She is very inquisitive, and this will serve her well as she gets further into research," Bennett wrote. "She's a sweet and generous person, a real pleasure to have as a student and to work with."
War and peace
Promethea loves her chickens.
She and her mother share a hillside home on 20 acres, up gravel Outlaw Hill Road in the Wineglass area south of Livingston, purchased five years ago with money left to Georgia by her sister. Their home has spectacular mountain views from Bozeman Pass to the Crazies.
"Hey, pretty girl," Promethea called to a clucking red Leghorn called Birthday Girl.
"They peck at me, sweet-talk me," she said. "It relaxes me in a way nothing else…. It's beautiful the way they dote over their eggs."
And at night on this hillside, she said, you can see "billions of stars."
"It gives me the sense of peace I need," she said.
Inside, their house is amazing, with indoor plants and beautiful orchids growing everywhere. It is overflowing with collections of dolls and angel figurines, Greek statues, books, family photos and large oil paintings by Georgia of Promethea as a child, before the girl changed her name from Jasmine Li. She named herself Promethea Olympia Kyrene Pythaitha, choosing names of mythological Greek heroines and oracles, to reflect her heroic aspirations.
Their sense of peace has been disrupted by battles with neighbors. Conflicts over dogs, children, fences and roads have escalated into three lawsuits. After one neighbor sued Georgia in 2007, Judge Nels Swandal concluded that both sides had "acted inappropriately over the years with yelling profanities, threats … none are blameless."
Still, the judge ruled that the neighbor, acting out of "rage," had committed unprovoked "assault" on Georgia, hitting and knocking her to the ground.
In 2008, Georgia sued a different neighbor, claiming he had threatened to kill her and Promethea by running their truck off the hill. Judge Richard Simonton of Glendive issued an injunction against the neighbor, ruling that while Georgia and Promethea may be exaggerating their fears, they "have the right to be left alone and free from harassment." The two sides later reached a confidential settlement.
In May, a third neighbor sued Georgia, alleging she had blocked access to his property. Georgia's attorney filed a counter charge, alleging that the neighbor had "threatened to burn their house down and them inside." That case is not yet resolved.
Promethea has been a key witness in court, having taken photos and videos of their encounters with neighbors that became evidence in court. Today they don't leave the house without a camera.
These fights, Promethea said, are draining, one of her biggest obstacles in pursuing her education. Georgia said the latest lawsuit may cost thousands of dollars she was planning to spend on fixing up their bathroom before the baby arrives. It has a toilet Promethea installed, but not yet a sink, tub or shower.
Why don't they just move?
"I don't run," Georgia said. "Someday, we'll have justice."
After graduating from MSU, Promethea was one of 11 Greek-American students from all over the country awarded $10,000 scholarships by the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation in 2006.
Hailed as a child prodigy, she was invited to speak in January 2007 in Chicago at a banquet for hundreds of Greek Americans. The occasion was the Festival of the Three Hierarchs, a celebration of three founders of the Greek Orthodox Church who lived around 400 A.D. She was asked to speak on the role of the church in education.
The more she researched, the more Promethea became convinced the church founders had been butchers. She discovered that early Christians destroyed temples, burned libraries full of ancient Greek learning and science considered pagan, tortured Greeks who refused to convert, set up a concentration camp and she believes murdered perhaps millions of people.
"I was appalled, shocked," Promethea said. "I felt betrayed by this religion that claimed to be a religion of love."
Today, she said, the Greek Orthodox Church continues to impose its censorship on society and its dogma on schools in Greece.
So 15-year-old Promethea wrote a 150-page speech in Greek, accusing the church of genocide, and calling for the separation of church and state and for an end to church control of education.
Georgia tried to talk her out of it. "I said, 'Don't give the speech, it's not safe for you.'"
But Promethea was determined. A citizen's highest duty, she said, is to say no to a system when it is wrong.
The night of the speech, Promethea donned a traditional Greek embroidered blouse, stood at the podium in the Ritz Hotel and began. To her right and left sat two bearded Greek Orthodox archbishops, wearing black robes and traditional, black hats.
Videos of her speech, posted on You Tube, record that 10 minutes into her talk, a man started shouting at her in Greek. Some people applauded, some screamed insults and others said, "Let her finish."
"I didn't believe I should say what the church wanted, to speak lies to keep them happy," Promethea said. "I felt someone should stand up. Maybe someone might make a change.
"Despite the fact it got me in a lot of trouble, I'd do it all over if given the chance."
After that uproar, promises from wealthy Greek Americans to pay for her education evaporated.
"I became famous, or infamous," Promethea said.
"A legend," her mother said.
Promethea received e-mails from passionate Greeks in America and Greece. Critics called her a "feminazi," a sinner who should repent. Supporters thanked her for her courage and sent books and offers to help with tuition.
"That really touched me," she said.
Promethea said one man from Florida harassed her for years, writing that she should leave her mother, leave MSU and attend an elite Ivy League college. She said she wouldn't trade her MSU professors "for all the MITs in the world."
Invited to visit Greece for five days, Promethea was interviewed by Alpha TV and visited the Athens Information Technology Center, which now is paying her tuition.
Promethea said she is also grateful to the Taylor family of Bozeman, which paid her tuition when she was younger.
After her 2005 graduation, she didn't have money for tuition and lost about a year of schooling. She wrote to Montana's U.S. senators and congressman, arguing that the state guarantees a free education to other teenagers, but she was being left behind. MSU offered to waive her tuition until age 16.
"When I was out of school I got very, very depressed," Promethea said. "It's the primary reason life is worth living n to go to school."
A few months after the Chicago speech, Georgia was driving home from MSU one moonlit night in her old Ford pickup, when it started to fishtail on Interstate 90.
Suddenly Georgia couldn't control the steering. She took her foot off the gas, closed her eyes, asked for divine help, and told Promethea to brace herself.
The truck flipped on the median, crashing on the driver's side.
Promethea survived what could have been a tragic accident with hardly a scratch. But Georgia had broken seven ribs, her sternum, right shoulder, her skull and her right cheek, where her eye was pulled from its socket. The doctor said Georgia was lucky to be alive.
"It was the first time I was horrified," Promethea said.
When Georgia recovered, they bought a safe new Honda truck with money from insurance and Greek supporters.
Now, with her baby due in September, Georgia isn't cleaning houses, so there isn't a lot of money coming in. She said it isn't unusual for women in her family to give birth late in life, and she views the pregnancy as "a gift from God."
At 18, Promethea stands 6 inches taller than her mother. Georgia still walks with her to classes, though she no longer sits in with her daughter, waiting outside instead, or working while her daughter studies. Still, they are seldom apart.
"I do miss her in classes when she's not there," Promethea said. "She's one of my closest friends."
If outsiders wonder whether Promethea is too isolated or protected by her mother, it certainly doesn't seem so to them. Promethea isn't shy about asserting herself.
"You know, I can do some talking," she chided her mother once during the interview.
"Oh, I'm quite independent," Promethea said. "I've done a lot of things my mother did not think were a good idea," like the speech in Chicago and studying all night.
Her mother expressed concern that when she's studying hard, Promethea sometimes only sleeps two or three hours a week. Promethea insisted it's not a problem.
"Sleeping and eating are the biggest waste of time," she said. "When I get hold of an idea like relativity or quantum mechanics, I don't want to let it go until I understand it fully."
Promethea said she has no friends her own age, but doesn't care. Girls her age are too interested in being sex objects, she said. Asked if she had any crushes on guys, she made a face and said she has better things to do.
Promethea said she wasn't planning ever to have children herself, but "because I love my mother, it transfers to the baby."
"We're very close friends," Georgia said. "She's extremely loyal to things she loves. She's the most feisty person I've met. Nobody can change her mind. I cannot persuade her to do anything she does not want to do. She's the most independent person I've met. She's the most humane person. It doesn't matter if she goes through hell, as long as it's right."
Promethea said she hopes someday her work will make the world a better place.
"My life so far is my science," Promethea said. "I find the peace I need from my school, my mother, my pets. I'm happy enough with the way my life is, basically.
"There's no shortage of children in the world n there's a shortage of scientists," Promethea said. "I'd rather stay where I'm needed. It's also where I'm happy."