When Jeeff Hernandez moved to Medford from Las Canoas, Mexico, three years ago, he knew how to say only "I like apples" in English.

When Jeeff Hernandez moved to Medford from Las Canoas, Mexico, three years ago, he knew how to say only "I like apples" in English.

He began his junior year at South Medford High School unable to talk to the majority of his peers and teachers.

"I remember that Mr. Hampton, Paul Hampton, he helped me a lot," Hernandez said. "We sat at a table, and he would point at things and show me how to do things without words. He was a huge influence. He was a role model. He was a chemistry teacher."

Hernandez said that, at first, he was depressed and frustrated that he could not communicate his ideas because of the language barrier.

"I thought, 'This has to end, so I have to speak it,'"‰" he said. "I decided to watch cartoons and TV shows, use dictionaries and flash cards. I would study with my brothers for an hour every day."

Two days a week, Hernandez would stay after school — sometimes as late as 7:30 p.m. — for tutoring through the school, as well as mentoring through the Hispanic Academic Outreach Project.

Hernandez' mother doesn't speak English, and his father knows only a little.

"The first year and half was just getting information, getting words and sentence structures, just getting the translation," he said. "After two years, I started to apply the things I knew and started to get involved with teachers and feel more comfortable."

"At first, if you don't know the language, you are afraid to make mistakes," he added. "You are afraid people will make fun of you. Some of my friends have been here a long time, but they don't know (the language) because they are afraid people will make fun of them."

This year is Hernandez' second as a senior. He could have graduated last June, but he decided to stay an extra year to grow his English. Although he needed to take only economics and English 4 this semester, he also took physics, geometry and Advanced Placement precalculus.

"Jeeff has always been a kid that we as teachers have been in awe of," said his English teacher, Kelly Burton.

Burton said Hernandez challenges other, younger English language learners, and his friend, Emmanuel Alvarez, who also is a second-year senior, challenges him.

"They go back and forth, and it's hilarious," Burton said. "They are always trying to one-up each other, while also challenging each other. When I see them both come in, I get the grade book out."

Hernandez initially aspired to be an architect, combining his passions for drawing and math. For his senior project, he worked with local architect Mark Mackechnie at Oregon Architecture to build a scale model of the Holly Theater. He has since switched his focus to civil engineering, and he wants to continue pursuing drawing as a hobby.

This fall, he will attend Oregon Institute of Technology, backed by a Carpenter Grant, the Cesar Chavez Scholarship and a Southern Oregon Latino Scholarship.

While he appreciates the education he has received in the states, Hernandez still misses Mexico, specifically his friends, his house, the activities available, and the roasted corn and other foods that aren't as common in Southern Oregon.

"(My brothers and I) would get out of school and go home and finish our homework, and then we would go to the soccer field and play for hours, or we would ride our bikes to the next town, which was an hour away," he said.

"You cannot hang out outside of stores or play on the streets here," he added. "Here you have to go to a friend's house. You are indoors, and I am more used to outdoors."

His father groomed racehorses in San Diego for 20-something years, but he would return to Mexico for a few months each year to see his family. After his father became a U.S. citizen, the whole family moved to California, and then to Oregon.

"(My father) said the U.S. would be better in some aspects like education," Hernandez said.

Burton said Hernandez applies himself in school and listens to the advice of others.

"I feel like his future is very bright," she said. "Some of it is due to the fact that he is a naturally intelligent kid, but a lot of it is due to the fact that he works all day long at school and loves learning."

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.