When Huron High math teacher Pete Collins hands out New York Times crossword puzzles to his students, they’re impressed: they know he created them. Collins started constructing puzzles three-and-a-half years ago, and made his first sale, to USA Today, just six months later. He was thrilled when Times puzzle editor Will Shortz, the superstar of the crossword world, began sending him encouraging rejection letters—and, finally, checks. The Times pays $200 for a weekday puzzle and $1,000 for its Sunday one (so far, Collins has sold just one of those—a joint effort with collaborator Joe Krozel).

Collins can’t explain his gift for creating clever clues and squeezing words into interlocking boxes. But he points out that mathematicians and musicians, not English majors, typically excel in puzzle making. “It’s something in the way we process information,” he speculates. Though people rarely recognize his name in public, he’s delighted with the response from his classes: “Many parents as well as students let me know that they enjoy working on them as a family activity.”