Taking higher education by leaps and bounds Math: Loren Spice, 17, is working on his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago.

December 28, 1998|By Suzanne Loudermilk Haunting eyes

Editor's note: Over the next few days, the Today section will follow up on some of the people and issues that made news in the Baltimore area in 1998.

These days, Loren Spice is a little thinner but a lot wiser -- if that's possible.

It's been several months since 17-year-old Loren was perched on a kitchen stool, gobbling homemade gingersnaps in his parents' Madonna kitchen, trading funny jibes with his younger brothers and saying goodbye to neighbors, relatives and friends in the heat of summer.

Like many teens, Loren was heading off to college -- but, unlike his peers, he was on the cusp of something a little bigger.

A lanky man-child with a hint of a mustache, Loren was about to start work on his Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Chicago, one of the country's top math schools, which wooed him with a $50,000-a-year tuition-and-stipend package.

Already, Loren had finished a whirlwind two years at Towson University, wrapping up his bachelor's and master's degrees to graduate in May at age 16 -- the school's youngest student. With a perfect 4.0 grade point average, he also was chosen student commencement speaker.

Now Loren, who had been away from home for only a week in fifth grade, was about to go live on his own in a tiny apartment on the outskirts of the university's urban campus. No mom, no dad, no brothers Ben and Adam or sister Taz. No dogs, not even grouchy Cheyenne, who snarls, or lovable Bob, a Chihuahua mix who adores Loren.

Everyone was worried. His mother was weepy. Could this sometimes absent-minded math whiz with allergies, who has locked his keys in the car on more than one occasion, survive on his own so far away?

Before he left for Chicago, Loren always had been under the watchful guidance of his family as he decided to skip high school at age 12 and go to Harford Community College, then on to Towson. At each step along the way, parents Martha and Ralph Spice nurtured him.

No one doubted that Loren, who was reading by age 2 1/2 , could do the work. His aunt, Pat Jones, remembers her first clue that Loren was so advanced.

It was snowing, she recalls, the day she picked the first-grader up at school. In the car, Loren was fidgety, looking out the window and squirming. He finally turned to her and said, "Do you know how many atoms and molecules are in the center of a snowflake?"

Today, no one is surprised by such comments. Loren constantly puzzles over that sort of complicated problem.

In September, Martha Spice and Pat Jones settled Loren into Chicago, leaving teary-eyed at the end of the week. But Loren was so obviously happy in his new surroundings, his mother said, she couldn't mourn for long.

"He's so where he belongs," says Martha Spice. "He's doing what he is meant to do."

At the university, Loren is consumed by a math environment he calls stimulating. So consumed, in fact, that he forgets at times to eat. Hence a drop in weight: 20 pounds in eight weeks on a 6-foot frame.

"My daily e-mails now include messages to eat," says his mother. "We had a little talk that man does not live by mathematics alone." They say April is the cruelest month. They're right.

Bright crocuses bloomed in April, and our clocks conspired to stretch the sunshine an extra hour. The setting betrayed us.

In April, we saw a photograph of a 9-year-old girl with the saddest eyes. And during a trial that lasted two long weeks, we learned of Rita Fisher's short life. Two days before the month ended, a jury convicted her abusers.

With that, we officially closed the case. Officially.

Travis Anderson couldn't.

Her eyes followed him, you see. He saw them every time he thought about the case. He saw them when he pushed away a plate of food, uneaten. When he awoke suddenly in the middle of the night.

The court psychiatrist predicted this would happen. The feelings Anderson had been forced to hold inside during the trial would come out later, the psychiatrist said.

Anderson can no longer remember much about the eyes of Rita's tormentors: her mother, sister, and sister's boyfriend. Strange, because he studied them for hours. He had a good view, from his seat in the jury box. Only the sister looked back, her dark eyes running over Anderson and the other jurors every morning. Sizing them up, he thought.

Anderson is still proud of how he kept his feelings hidden during the trial. His face never hinted at his bubbling rage as he listened to the testimony. In the jury room, he considered the evidence methodically. His voice stayed even during deliberations.

A few months later, he attended the sentencing. Only one other juror was there. Anderson sat in the middle of the crowded courtroom, watching the boyfriend's eyes fill with tears as the judge sentenced him to 95 years in prison.

Afterward, Anderson had lunch with the other juror. That was the last time he has spoken to any of them.

Eventually, Anderson was able to resume doing things he enjoyed. He went camping with his wife again and returned to work.

But sometimes, he sees someone on the street who looks like the mother, or the boyfriend, and instantly, he is transported back in time.

Sometimes, his job brings him to the Pikesville neighborhoods near where Rita Fisher lived. He stares at the tidy rows of houses and the children playing outside, and he thinks about how no one really knows what is happening behind closed doors.

He won't ever forget her eyes.

Sarah Pekkanen Pub Date: 12/28/98

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