At 7, Jacob Armen made his Tonight Show debut

Jacob Armen never doubted what he would be when he grew up. After wowing the Tonight Show audience with a blazing solo, the 7-year-old barely let Johnny Carson finish the question: "Your aim in life is to become the best drummer in the—"

"World," Armen said.

That wasn't so far-fetched. From the age of 18 months he had rapped out complex jazz rhythms, taught by his father, Albert, a former L.A.-area nightclub owner. "I knew no matter what, I'd always play the drums," says Armen, now 21. "That's my identity." Albert, 57, who is legally blind, nurtured—but never pushed—his youngest child. "I wanted him to do this with pleasure and love," he says. At age 6, a rendering of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" got Armen a stint with the Cal State-Northridge Jazz Band. A year later he earned three standing ovations at the Monterey Jazz Festival and began touring internationally after his Tonight Show segment. At 10 he signed a seven-year, $190,000 contract with Prince.

But with precocity came a price. Armen drew taunts from other kids and transferred to four different schools. "I was an outcast," he says. His parents fought over his upbringing, with mom Jenny, 55, striving to give him a normal childhood. "I just wanted my baby," she recalls. Musically, Armen hit a wall, in part, he says, because Prince restricted his appearances. (Prince declined to comment for this article.) Feeling like a has-been at 12, he lost himself in video games. "That was my drug," he says. "It took me into a different world."

He would not regain his passion for the drums until he was 19, when Albert gave him a stern lecture about squandering his gift. Armen soon started performing locally again and cut a CD, Breakthrough, which he sells through his Web site. Once again, he hopes to conquer the music world—but just in case, he's studying music and business at USC and working toward his real estate license. Whatever happens, Armen will always draw strength from his drum kit. "I've got to have it near me, I've got to smell it," he says. "I'm truly blessed for going through these ups and downs. Now I feel victorious."

At 12, Dika Newlin heard a symphony perform her work

Dika Newlin was reading dictionaries by age 3 and composed her first piano piece at 8. When she was 12, Cincinnati orchestra conductor Vladimir Bakaleinikoff added her piece to his repertoire, and two years later Newlin—the daughter of an English professor and a homemaker—lit out for UCLA to become a protégée of famed composer Arnold Schoenberg. She went on to become a music professor, settling at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1978. Never married, Newlin, 79, never wanted children—"not having known them, I can't deal with them"—but students find her forever hip. "When I think she's been teaching for 60 years, that's pretty wow," says Alex Gillette, 18, of his instructor, who in her spare time has led such Richmond punk ensembles as Mr. Wiggly and the Sump Pumps. "I feel like a child more than I did as a child," Newlin says. "I try more and more to live by the day, to do something because it feels good."

At 11, Adragon De Mello graduated from college

Adragon De Mello smiled when the 1989 Guinness Book of World Records named him, at 11, history's youngest college graduate. He smiled for PEOPLE, for 60 Minutes and any other camera aimed his way. But the facade masked deep loneliness and a fear of his mercurial father, Agustin, who drove him ferociously. "When he yelled, it would just rattle your whole body," recalls De Mello, 26. "That was enough to get me working."

He isn't working now—not since September 2001, when he lost his latest job as a quality assurance engineer for an Internet start-up. That isn't how his father—now 73 and stricken with terminal bladder cancer—planned it. Agustin was 44 when he met 21-year-old Cathy Gunn. The unwed couple, who worked as technical writers, named their son Adragon because he was born in 1976, the Chinese year of the dragon. Agustin claimed the boy said his first word—"hello"—at six weeks; believing him a genius, he drilled him in academics. At age 3, Adragon could do cube roots; at 8, he entered Cabrillo Community College. "I longed to see other kids," he says. "All I really wanted to do was play."

Arriving on scholarship at UC-Santa Cruz, he struggled to eke out a math degree. (His record has since been broken by a 10-year-old.) Then on Sept. 19, 1988, his life changed forever: A SWAT team descended on his house and whisked him away. His mother, who had moved out, had charged that Agustin's methods were endangering their son. The cops confiscated 10 guns, ammo and boxes of the boy's homework. Says Gunn, who won custody: "I gave him back his childhood."

Indeed, he may be the only college grad ever to enroll in junior high; he also joined Little League and underwent therapy. De Mello skated through high school, but one day, at 19, long-repressed anger bubbled over: He went to Agustin's house and smashed all his old plaques and diplomas. Father and son have since reconciled. In fact, the single De Mello briefly moved in to look after Agustin, who makes no apologies for his parenting. "I don't feel any regrets," he says. Except, perhaps, that Adragon's mother "brainwashed" him into being merely ordinary. Still, last year he managed to say, "I'm proud of you," to his son. "He never told me that when I was younger," says De Mello. "Fourteen years ago there was disappointment. I don't see that now."

Josh Waitzkin
As a kid, he had chessmates quaking

Josh Waitzkin wasn't much more than a tot when he stopped in Manhattan's Washington Square Park to play his first game of chess. Afterward, the stranger he played told him, "You'll be famous." That prophecy soon came dizzyingly true. The oldest child of writer-teacher parents, Waitzkin was checkmating champions in Russia at 7; at 16, he was an international master. A year later, with the release of 1993's Searching for Bobby Fischer—a film based on the book by his father and manager, Fred—he had his own groupies. Eventually he buckled under the pressure and "lost the drive," says Waitzkin, 26. "I realized that even if I became the world champion, it wasn't going to make me happy."

Three years ago he quit the pro circuit and enrolled at Columbia University, where he's majoring in religion and Eastern philosophy. His obsession now is the martial art known as tai chi chuan. "Somehow he's a genius," says his teacher, grand master William Chen. "He thinks about the next move like he's playing a game of chess." But now "the world's not watching," says Waitzkin. "That's one of the main attractions for me."

At 13, Misty Copeland drew raves as a ballerina

In 19 years of teaching ballet, Cynthia Bradley had never seen a dancer as breathtakingly talented as Misty Copeland. More remarkable was the fact that the 13-year-old who had walked into Bradley's San Pedro, Calif., school had never taken a single lesson. "I saw one of the most gifted people in her generation needing more than just a ballet class to further her training," says Bradley. So she took the novice home.

At first, that was fine with Copeland's impoverished single mother, Sylvia DelaCerna, who lived with three of her other children in a residential motel, a two-hour bus ride away. But the arrangement soured. "She wanted complete control of Misty," says DelaCerna, 45, now a sales rep in Los Angeles. Counters Bradley: "We were giving birth to a ballerina."

For the next 2½ years, while Copeland lived with the Bradley family and spent every spare moment training, relations between her mother and teacher grew worse. When Bradley persuaded Copeland to file an emancipation request—which would have given the dancer the legal right to determine her own fate—a custody battle ensued. But in 1998 Copeland withdrew her petition. "I was 15, I didn't even know what 'emancipation' meant," she says. "Once back home, I realized that's where I belonged."

Through all the offstage drama, Copeland won national ballet contests and her first solo role at 14. "As a dancer," says Diane Lauridsen, one of her later teachers, "she was kissed by God."

The directors of the American Ballet Theater agree. Today, at age 20, Copeland is a member of the prestigious troupe, on track to become its first black prima ballerina. Says Copeland: "I want African-American little girls—and boys too—to know they can do what I've done."

Written by: Richard Jerome, Christina Cheakalos and Susan Horsburgh
Reported by: Lyndon Stambler, Jennifer Frey and Melody Simmons

  • Contributors:
  • Lyndon Stambler,
  • Jennifer Frey,
  • Melody Simmons.