When Joel Villasenor came with his family to the United States from Jalisco, Mexico, at the age of 8, he knew just two words of English and both were hyphenated--Coca-Cola and 7-Up.
Within two years, he was reading "Romeo and Juliet" and understanding it. He later knocked off "War and Peace." In a week. And now, at the age of 17, the junior at Channel Islands High School in Oxnard is fluent in Spanish, English and French, is teaching himself Italian, and plans to learn German in the next year or so.
And he is trying to raise money for a July trip to Geneva, Switzerland, as part of an elite Johns Hopkins University summer study program that he first attended last year.
It's a far cry from carbonated beverages.
Add to these other accomplishments his prize possession, a letter from actress Deborah Kerr in response to a fan letter that he sent her, and what else is there left to do in life? Plenty.
"I'm very much into diplomacy," Villasenor said the other day as he skipped an English class for the interview. (It seems that he could afford to miss class, well-versed as he already is on the subject of romantic poets.) "I'd like to be an interpreter or a diplomat. Let's be presumptuous . . . secretary general of the U. N."
Villasenor always expected a lot from himself and, because of it, some educators at Loma Vista Elementary School in Ventura had no idea how bright he was when, in the third grade, he entered the school system.
"He came in late in the year. He was very quiet. I didn't know what to think," said Lynn Beard, his third-grade teacher. "He didn't want to speak English until he knew it perfectly."
"I'm one of those turkeys who believes in the King's English. You don't massacre the language," Villasenor said. "I'm an extreme perfectionist--I could read and write, but my accent wasn't right."
Villasenor admitted that he was scared when he first entered school. Relocating to Southern California with his father, Raymundo, a farm worker; his mother, Esperanza, and a younger sister, Rocio (he now has a second sister, Erica), was difficult enough, but school was nothing like anything he'd experienced.
In Mexico, "I went for a couple of years to the town school," he said. "School was four posts and a thatched roof. We brought our own chairs."
It wasn't until about the fourth grade at Loma Vista that Villasenor began strutting his mental stuff.
"I decided it was time to start reading," he said. "Dumb little kid . . . I chose the 'Count of Monte Cristo.' I went home, got into bed and read the whole book. It was about 400 pages."
His fourth-grade teacher, Pat McIntyre, remembers Villasenor's knowledge of English as phenomenal.
"He loved to experiment with words. When we were writing, if one or two adjectives was sufficient, he'd put in 10," she said. "By the end of the fourth grade, we had a spelling word, balcony . I said, 'Juliet was on the balcony.' From that, he wanted to read 'Romeo and Juliet.' At the beginning of the year, he was classified as a non-English speaker, and by the end of the year, we gave him the California Achievement Test and he scored in the 90th percentile."
A look at his present class schedule would indicate that he is living up to his potential--chemistry (advanced placement), French (advanced placement), French literature, U. S. history and English (honors). He has one year of high school remaining and then it's off to college, preferably Harvard.
Villasenor keeps busy scholastically, but he does have an out-of-school life--and an eclectic one at that. He likes music, mostly baroque, but Paula Abdul has her place too.
He loves films--in fact, he entertains the thought of writing screenplays. He most definitely loves reading--anything. And he watches television, his favorite show being, appropriately, "Get Smart."
He also loves the notion of traveling to foreign countries, which makes his trip to Geneva that much more exciting.
"Ever since I was a child, Europe was that cache, that ultimate goal," Villasenor said. "I remember reading a travel brochure. It had blue ink. It talked about Paris and Venice. I had totally forgotten about it until the seventh or eighth grade, when I went on a travel brochure collecting spree. I loved to leaf through them and dream. It seems everyone in Europe is fascinating, but maybe when you're looking at something through rose-colored glasses, everything looks fascinating."
UP CLOSE: JOEL VILLASENOR
Birthplace: Jalisco, Mexico
School: Channel Islands High School
Hero: Cary Grant
Favorite Movies: "The Third Man" and "Dangerous Liaisons"
Least Favorite Music: Country-and-Western and heavy metal (tie)
Favorite Restaurant: The Pascha Club, a pizza joint in Switzerland
Hobby: Deltiology (postcard collecting)
Perspective: "I guess the breakthrough point was when I could read advertisements on television. That was when they knew I could read back in Mexico."