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Correction Appended: March 24, 2003
They may have been different, but they weren't picked on for it. "No one is getting beat up," Parr recalls. "No one is taking your lunch money." Some kids described feeling cut off in their "intense" program, but in another sense they had found a safe place for smart kids. "Everybody was a geek," classmate Bennett Madison notes. "Nobody was really shunned for it." John, he recalls, was "very analytical and very thoughtful, to a point where most fourth-graders are not. And that made him a little bit unusual." When the boys sat in the back of the bus, trading Marvel comic cards and seeing what they could get away with, John watched as if he were in a laboratory. The great thrill was to give passersby the finger through the window in the emergency exit. They imagined that one day a policeman would swoop down and order them off the bus. "John was, like, keeping a notebook of their reactions," says Madison. "He was thinking of it as an experiment, where the rest of us were thinking, 'Oh, let's give people the finger!'"
However easygoing John seemed, he also began missing a lot of school on account of allergies and asthma. Madison claims that John told him he had also started seeing a therapist. In their circle of high achievers, this did not strike Madison as unusual. "Half of the other kids were totally falling apart," he says. "The kids were all really smart, and sometimes the really smart kids are kind of neurotic."
After Frank finished law school, he worked for a series of area firms and as a litigation attorney for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from 1987 until 1989. That year, when John was 8, his father joined the Washington office of Le Boeuf, Lamb, Leiby & MacRae and was later invited to move to San Francisco to work in the firm's office there. Thus would begin a whole new chapter for the family. "We didn't keep in touch after they left here," Gilcher says, but "it's hard for me to imagine them fitting into a type of stereotypical life in California. The usual account I've read is this frozen image of a Takoma Park hippie moves into a fancy suburb in San Francisco and lives in a hot tub the rest of their lives. I have some doubts that that's the case."
John's friends didn't keep up either. Just before the day of the move, several of his friends came over for a last sleepover. His mother gave each of her son's friends a stack of a couple of dozen stamped, addressed envelopes so they could stay in touch after the move. "I never sent a single one," says Madison, and when John called him a year or so later, he felt bad about it. "He sounded kind of lonely," Madison says.