May 26, 2011 in Washington Voices

Independent scholar embraces life off grid

By The Spokesman-Review
Colin Mulvany photoBuy this photo

Jacob Irvine is largely home schooled and attends Riverside Alternative School for enrichment activities once a week. He loves to play the piano.
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You can always tell when Jacob Irvine, 18, is in attendance at the Riverside Independent Scholars Program. The family’s four-wheel drive stake-bed pickup is in the parking lot. This spring, the truck was even easier to spot due to the ample coating of mud.

Irvine, his brother, Josh, and their mother, Susan Mikel, live five miles outside of Usk, Wash., and have to travel their three-mile long driveway to reach a road. When it’s wet, it’s muddy, and the truck was evidence of just how wet this spring has been. “Hard to keep the truck clean when the mud is this deep,” Mikel observed.

“We live totally off the grid and are powered by generators,” Irvine said. The family moved to the 20-acre site eight years ago, a few years after his stepfather, Steven Mikel, passed away. It had always been his mother’s dream to live in the country – which they are now doing surrounded by a garden, a horse and chickens.

Irvine recognizes it’s not a conventional life, but it is one he embraces. Just as the remoteness of his home life is atypical, so is his approach to school. Not comfortable in a regular school setting, he participates in the independent scholars parent partnership at Riverside, which allows him six days of home study and one day at school, where he is tested on his homework and where he takes part in extracurricular activities.

“This gives me more time to invest in what I want to do, where I can be home with family,” he said, adding that he has no regrets about not going to the mall and hanging out with friends. Indeed, he said he believes he makes deeper friendships with fellow students in independent learner studies than he would have elsewhere.

An avid reader with good grades, Irvine said he sometimes gets caught up in a series of books by an author and stays up all night or devotes a weekend to read them. He enjoys hours of hiking and fishing. He writes fiction (“I need to get my creative energies out”) and is a largely self-taught pianist (though he has had some tutoring), playing both classical and original works.

He especially enjoys time in the woods that surround his home. “The woods don’t care why you are there or how you got there,” he said. “You’re just there. It’s humbling. Everything there belongs there.”

Irvine says he understands that his course of education might make his transition into the post-high school world a bit more difficult. Still, he is preparing to attend Eastern Washington University this fall. He thinks his mom will be OK with it, too, although he’s unsure how she will solve any computer issues that arise, as he does now, while he’s in Cheney. “I’m not sure I can fix things for her remotely,” he said.

Irvine hopes to become an attorney and eventually a judge. He said that would be a vocation that would make a difference in the world, and that is something he dearly wants to do.

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