November 22, 2007

My Roommate is What?!

I used to watch A LOT of Nickelodeon. I was an expert on all the shows that frequented channel 20:

Double Dare
Legends of the Hidden Temple
Hey Arnold!
Aaaaah! Real Monsters
Figure it Out
Wild and Crazy Kids

Have I mentioned that I love MIT? There are a bunch of reasons for this, one of them being you meet awesome people. Guess what I found out . . .

You've seen Figure it Out, right? Kids with crazy talents try to stump a panel of Nickelodeon stars and watch them get slimed. Who was the very first contestant of the very first episode of the very first season? Mr. Jon Estrada, my roommate, was apparently a child genius. His special talent for Figure it Out? He could bite cheese into the shapes of all 50 states. I REMEMBER THAT EPISODE!!! Do you have any idea how weird it is to discover that you watched your roommate on TV when you were 5? Apparently he was on more than just Figure it Out, he was also on Letterman! I found this article about him in The New York Times.

New York Times Article Quoted Below:

Early on, the pediatrician noted Jonathan Estrada's attention span. "At six months he liked watching 'Wheel of Fortune,' " says his mother, Mary. "He'd get all excited when they turned over the letters."

When Jonathan was 9 months old, Mrs. Estrada and her husband, Mario, were waiting in traffic at a red light. "I was saying, 'Do you think we should get him a Sesame Street ABC-123 video?' My husband says, 'What?' And Jonathan says, 'ABC-123.' We turned and stared. We were frozen. Cars were honking. I said, 'Jonathan, say it again.' "


By 16 months, Jonathan could read "Alphabet Soup" by Kate Banks, which begins: "A boy did not want his lunch. He squirmed." At 2 years, 8 months, he had the vocabulary skills of an 8-year-old and an I.Q. so high that the psychologist wrote, "160+, probably a low estimate."

But the specialty he has become famous for -- geography -- was nurtured at the family business, the Quick Way Deli in Levittown. Before he was 2, by using his teeth, Jonathan Estrada could shape all 50 states of the union from cheese slices. (For state capitals, he'd leave a tooth mark.) In September, 23 million viewers saw 4-year-old Jonathan form Utah and Rhode Island from cheese on the David Letterman show. Now, wherever the family goes around town, people say, "The cheese boy!" And Mrs. Estrada says, "His name is Jonathan."

People tell Mrs. Estrada she hasn't a thing to worry about, but that's all she does. "I want to know, what do we do with this boy?" she says. "He's dying to learn." (At 4, he reads at a fifth-grade level.)

She has looked everywhere. The Estradas visited Long Island School for the Gifted. Carol Yilmaz said she started the private school in 1980 because she couldn't find a program for her daughter Robyn, now a Harvard senior. But tuition is $5,400, and the Estradas say they can't afford it.

Mrs. Estrada thinks it's great that there are federally mandated public pre-school programs for handicapped children from infancy. But she can't understand why there's nothing for the Jonathans. "I'm not looking for handouts; I'm looking for some place to send my child," she says. "You wouldn't believe how many other parents I hear from who are in the same position."

The United States Department of Education last week released "National Excellence: A Case for Developing America's Talent," a report calling for the expansion of programs for the gifted. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley warns, "The concerns of students with outstanding talents must not be ignored." And yet the Clinton Administration is spending just $9.6 million for gifted programs, the same the Bush Administration spent the year before. New York State alone spends $13 million on gifted programs, and even that, says David Irvine, the programs' director, is a fraction of what local districts need.

The Estradas could make big money off Jonathan. "We had more than 100 calls after Letterman," Mrs. Estrada said. "Radio programs, clothing promotions, computer games, the Vicki Lawrence show. We turned down food companies trying to make him into a human billboard." (Imagine the endorsement potential of a kid who can bite states not only from cheese but from graham crackers, too.)

"I don't want my son to be exploited," she says.

David DePietto, owner of Futurekids in Dix Hills, a computer school that Jonathan attended, was quite impressed by the Letterman invitation. "He said if your son wears a school logo on Letterman, we'll give him a year of free school," Mrs. Estrada recalls. She said no and removed Jonathan from the school. Mr. DePietto says he was just trying to save the family some money.

It was a financial sacrifice, but the Estradas moved to this upscale suburb two years ago because they'd heard that the public schools were first-rate. But even here, the budget ax has fallen, and in recent years the gifted program has been cut in half. (It begins the second half of first grade with two and a half hours of "pullout" instruction.)

So Mrs. Estrada takes Jonathan to the library every day. And she and her husband have bought him a computer with a junior high geography program. Every night after dinner she spends an hour with him doing math. While putting her infant daughter to bed, Mrs. Estrada can hear Jonathan in the tub, reciting state capitals.

Mr. Estrada works 14 hours a day, seven days a week at the deli. When he gets home at 9, he and Jonathan speak in Spanish. The father, who was born in Colombia, thinks they should capitalize on the commercial offers. But Mrs. Estrada, from Queens, says: "Mario, you don't know what people are like in this country. They'll exploit Jonathan."

She says she agreed to do Letterman as a lark -- Tina Turner was scheduled that night. "My all-time idol," Mrs. Estrada says. But it has given her pause. "Why do you think all these kids go to Hollywood?" she says. "It's not all stage mothers. There aren't many places to go for kids like this. The Letterman people want him on again. But I tell them I think it's too soon." She is quiet. "I don't know," she says.


hungyee said...

Your roommate is what?! Oh. My. I was so startled and went totally speechless while reading your blog lol. Your roommate is SO COOL!! I envy you!

Anonymous said...

Wasn't he on Jeopardy or something?

Jon said...

hey, i got blogged, lol.

Nancy said...

He was on was just hilarious. I remember seeing it when it was on the air.

Anonymous said...