March 10, 1994
Vol. 13, No. 13

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    First year a true first for homeschooled student

    What happens to an 8-year-old boy whose parents fight for and win the right to legally homeschool him?

    If he's Jacob Spicer, he winds up at the University of Chicago, a 23-year-old first-year College student whose life in Hyde Park actually began when he moved here seven years ago.

    The oldest of seven children, Spicer moved from Spring Green, Wisc., where his father makes a living as a woodworker and his mother is active in the community. His parents had planned from the beginning to educate their children at home.

    "In Wisconsin you can wait until, say, age 7 or 8 to send your kids to school before anybody says anything," Spicer said. "Any state with farming is pretty lenient. People keep their kids home during farming season all the time. It was quite a while before anyone started coming to our house to find out why I wasn't in school."

    Spicer's parents had taken care to ensure that Jacob could prove they had not neglected his education. He was reading at 4; he can't remember not knowing how to add and subtract, multiply and divide. The Spicers met the school board head to head and won, and Jacob became one of the first legally homeschooled children in Wisconsin.

    The somewhat radical independence that homeschooling instilled in the Spicer children burgeoned in Jacob at age 16, when he decided to move to Chicago. "When you're 16, you're ready for your world to expand," Spicer said. "In rural Wisconsin, that just wasn't happening for me. My uncle's family lives in Hyde Park, so I moved in with them for about six months, then I got a place of my own."

    Spicer found a job at 57th St. Bookcases and after four months was promoted to foreman. He settled into life in Hyde Park, which eventually led him to the University.

    "My circle of friends was made of University people," Spicer said. "I realized that the group of people that I had chosen to live my life interacting with all shared something I didn't have.

    "That's why I wanted to go to college," Spicer continued. "Not having a college degree is too big an excuse for people to not take you seriously. You ask why I want a piece of paper -- I say I want a liberal arts education. I love to write and I want to be better at it. I love to read and I want to be better at that, too."

    Spicer credits his homeschooling background with improving rather than diminishing his chances of acceptance at the University. "My application is kind of hard to toss off the pile," Spicer said, laughing. "It clearly required a new approach -- at the very least it required a distinct review. As long as your situation can warrant that, you have an advantage."

    Otherwise, it doesn't often occur to Spicer that he was homeschooled. "I almost never feel that my approach to something is reflecting homeschooling," he said. "It just doesn't exist on that conscious level. I may not have been provided with all the skills that other students have, but I have certainly been provided with the means to acquire them."

    Spicer's background does, however, manifest itself in certain ways. "When you start to talk about the things that constitute education in society today, I fall short in a lot of categories -- in math, for example, and the sciences in general.

    "But is an education ever successful when the recipient perceives it as an imposition?" Spicer continued. "If I'd gone to high school, chances are I would not have learned as much as I did. When you ask people what they remember from school, it's the subjects they liked and wanted to learn. I don't go wholeheartedly after things that I'm not all that excited about."

    So far, Spicer's courses in the College have met that requirement. "I'm having a blast," he said. "I love my classes. The books we read are so good, and everyone I meet is intelligent and interesting. And there's the opportunity to see leading people -- I can go see Kurt Vonnegut, I can hear Paul Sereno. There's a feeling of rare air here that's very stimulating."

    His excitement has helped Spicer adjust from full-time employee to full-time student, but the change has not been without its difficulties. "I think it must be like the transition from high school to college," he said. "You go from having very managed time to having time that isn't managed at all. Consequently, the opportunity arises to spend a lot of time doing nothing -- an opportunity of which I have to admit I have made ample use.

    "But I'm slowly learning to discipline myself," Spicer said. "I'm discovering what role discipline plays when it's not constraint -- when it's a self-imposed discipline. What happens to the idea of discipline when the disciplinarian is you instead of some outside source?

    "Well," Spicer continued, laughing, "I think that for a while everyone goes home and sleeps. But then you realize that life wasn't so bad when you weren't taking afternoon naps, and you might have been a lot more productive."

    Finding his place in the society of students on campus has been something of a challenge for Spicer -- not because of his age, as might be expected, but because he lives off campus. "There are few things worth standing up for, but one of them is definitely the Commuter Student Association," Spicer said. "So many things look enviable about the dorms -- the sense of community and fraternity, the proximity to other students. But I feel I get some of that with the commuters and that's good -- those things are important."

    In addition to his life as a College student, Spicer is dedicated to Big Fish Furniture, a new custom woodworking shop located just south of the Midway Plaisance. A collective venture, Big Fish was created out of a three-way partnership among Spicer, Hans Morsbach, owner of the Medici restaurants, and Hank Vogler, a fine-wood craftsman whose wife, Candace, is Assistant Professor in Philosophy.

    The opportunity to participate in the Big Fish enterprise arose out of Spicer's longtime friendship with Morsbach, who was interested in opening a custom woodshop. Operating since last October, Big Fish produces handmade furniture on-site in the building that previously housed the Resource Center recycling project. Spicer spends about 15 hours a week there, working in the shop and managing various other aspects of the business.

    "I've rolled the dice in a big way," Spicer said. "There's a lot riding on Big Fish, and I really want it to work. There's a lot riding on school, and I really want that to work, too. I balance them by not balancing them -- I do one single-mindedly, then I do the other. So far that's working."

    -- Carmen Marti