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My Dream: He's an original

[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
Two terrible events nearly ruined Niko Jaramillo’s life. Now he’s making the most of every minute.

By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 19, 2002

What do you do if you are 10 and you have a nickel left after using the copy machine? If you're Niko Jaramillo, you copy your face.

My name is Niko. I'm 10 years old, well, really 10 and three-quarters. And I'm a homeschooler.

I really like it, and I learn a lot. I'm in the fifth grade, but the thing is, I think I can learn more than I would in a regular classroom. Because I'm in a different environment. About the only thing I don't get to do here is PE, which I've taken care of with karate lessons.

I have my good days and my bad days. I mean, sometimes I can get done with my work in three hours, and sometimes I work until after dinner. In math, I'm already at a seventh-grade level, and same with reading. But my favorite subject is science. It's one of my classes with other homeschool kids, and the teacher is Mr. Doug Scull, and he's amazing.

He has captured black widows, and they've escaped and crawled on his arm. Once, I had a Burmese python right in my face. He brings in all these animals, even an 8-foot alligator. I wasn't even scared.

My other science class is at MOSI (the Museum of Science and Industry), and that's where we're growing bacteria. I got mine from my armpit. That grew the best -- it was so weird.

Once a week, my mom takes me to the library in Tampa. We're studying poetry, which is not my favorite topic. One time I was copying some poems on the machine, and I used a quarter. But then I had 5 cents left over. So I decided to make a copy of my head. It didn't come out very good, but I keep it in my poetry folder for fun.

* * *

I'm Niko's mom, Julie Jaramillo. We moved here last year from San Rafael, just north of San Francisco. We'd lived in Tampa when Niko was 3 for a couple of years. And my husband's family is still here, so that's one of the reasons we moved back.

We decided to homeschool Niko while we were still in California. I received two notices in the mail from his school. One said his test scores made him a candidate for the gifted program. The next one I got said he was really struggling and at the point of almost failing third grade, and he needed to be evaluated for special education.

I was very involved in the school, and we had a lot of meetings, and they just couldn't help us. Niko is very tactile in his learning. And he'd scored in the 98th percentile on his standardized test. So something didn't make sense. There was something in how he was learning that was blocking the process. That's when we decided to homeschool him.

* * *

I work hard, but I have lots of time for fun. My favorite part of the newspaper is the comics. I like the guy who's always at work, Dilbert. I love the Simpsons. . . . The Simpsoooons. And I like to watch Yu-Gi-Oh! on Saturday mornings. I'm a big collector. I have over 100 cards. I have to keep them in a big box high up, because my brother Patrick is 3, and he's already destroyed two of my best cards. Every sibling has an annoying side, and in Patrick's case, it consumes most of his brain.

When I grow up, my dream is to have my own trade-card shop. And I want to ride for the X Games on my dirt bike. My parents bought me one when I was 10. And they take me riding about 45 minutes away on weekends. I love doing that.

* * *

Niko and I entered homeschooling with an agreement that we'd do it for as long as it worked for everybody. After three years, it's been great. But at any point, if Niko says he misses school, or "I'm ready to go back to school," then we'll probably do that. Niko has to have a standardized test, and it's important for us to follow the requirements for fifth grade.

But there are important choices I can make as his teacher. He would have been stuck on cursive writing in fourth grade. He couldn't get the hang of it. So I let him type or print. And when he was learning to read, his old school was using phonics, and he was not reading. I kept explaining that he reads by word recognition, and as soon as your brain has enough words, you read. It was a big struggle. But now, he's a voracious reader.

* * *

Sci-Fi is my favorite. I'm reading Merlin. And I've read four books of Seventh Tower, another magic-type book. Plus, I started reading Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy. But I don't just read. I have a lot of friends in our apartment complex. And I talk to my old friends by e-mail or the phone.

* * *

There's a little bit of background about Niko that is part of who he is. When he was little, we lived with my husband's family in Colombia, South America. And we had some very scary experiences there. Some men came to my father-in-law's coffee ranch, where we were living, and tried to kidnap Niko. It was a political thing. They were demanding money, and tried to take him hostage. But we hid in the shower and there was a battle, but we escaped. It was very frightening.

Then, when we were getting ready to leave Colombia, Niko was attacked by a dog in the face. He had to have five plastic surgeries. But, they did a wonderful job. You can't tell he was attacked at all. So, I feel like Niko has lived through a lot in 10 years.

* * *

I remember what happened, but it doesn't make me scared. We even have a dog, a golden retriever. I don't think about it, because it happened, and it's over. And I have lots of other things I do think about.

Like all the school work I still have to do today.

-- My Dream is a feature in which people discuss their goals and aspirations. It appears on Saturdays in Floridian.

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