From the beginning, Auburn’s Nikkolis O’Neal took a special interest in how things worked mechanically. It was his way of finding order in a distracted, often confused world of learning inside a crowded classroom.
As a young boy, he fidgeted, but ultimately focused on one thing at one time. He explored and repaired gadgets, including the electric pencil sharpener belonging to Heather McMullen’s first-grade class at Pioneer Elementary School.
“He would take it all apart and put it back together,” McMullen recalled.
It was only a beginning.
McMullen realized Nikkolis was a unique kid with a special way of learning. While discovering the wonders of computers, motors and machines, he was learning much about himself, notably how his driven mind and nimble fingers could do magic by turning a tool.
The teacher gave him the extra time. She helped show him the way.
“What I did wasn’t so special. It’s what I do,” McMullen said humbly.
Nikkolis hasn’t forgotten what she did for him at a fragile, formative age while facing his learning disabilities. Apart for 11 years, they joyfully reunited on Wednesday to share the experiences of a young teacher bringing out the best in a struggling boy.
The O’Neal family searched long, then found and contacted McMullen just two weeks ago. Laura O’Neal wrote a touching letter to McMullen and invited her to rejoin the family after all the lost years.
Nikkolis will graduate from Covington’s Kentwood Christian Academy next Friday with straight A’s. He plans to attend Green River Community College and become a fully certified mechanic. He is confident, happy, proud.
McMullen, now an instructional math coach in the Puyallup School District, will accompany Nikkolis’ family at commencement.
“What’s been good in this is it reminds myself of why I got into this field,” she said with a smile.
Nikkolis has come far in his 18 years.
He nearly died from complications at birth and overcame health issues as he entered school. Doctors first diagnosed Nikkolis with having “traces of cerebral palsy.” As time went by, he developed more oddities and was labeled “borderline autistic.”
In the public school system, such kids toil. Nikkolis was not alone. Misdiagnosed early on, he became frustrated.
McMullen, however, recognized that Nikkolis needed help. After hearing him talk so much about electrical things, she created a box of items such as outlets, cords and wires. She then devised a program to help him learn by using diversions and rewards. Progress meant pulling items from the box to explore.
Nikkolis thrived that year.
“She had 29 or 30 children in her class, but she took the time to help them all, even mine,” O’Neal said. “I feel this set the tone for his continued education throughout the years.”
Needing a smaller class size and closer attention, Nikkolis eventually enrolled at KCA. He grew and matured.
He first started to study and fix sprinkler systems and lawn movers. By age 12, he helped build and repair computers for an Auburn store.
“He made it look easy,” Laura said.
As a senior, he excelled at such subjects as Web page design, facility management and landscaping, and essay composition. He also became the familiar repairman around school.
“He fixes my car and his friends’ cars,” Laura said. “He’s awesome at it.”
Nikkolis even tackled one of his biggest challenges: rebuilding a five-speed automatic manual transmission.
“I was just fascinated by how things worked since I was a kid,” he said. “I was fascinated that something that was not alive could run by doing things to it.”
Good things await Nikkolis in his future. He has a better understanding of who is he and where he is going.
Only recently has he been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a mild form of autism. He still has trouble negotiating certain things, but his mastery of machinery is uncanny.
McMullen noticed the difference, even after all these years.
“You’re looking very confident,” she said.
Thanks, in part, to someone who shared a pencil sharpener and box of gadgets in the first grade.
“She was the one who made it all possible,” Nikkolis said. “I wouldn’t have graduated this easy today without her help.”
Mark Klaas can be reached at 253-833-0218, ext. 5050, or