Every weekday, Zachary Jeppsen boards the 6:22 a.m. train at the Harvard Metra station near the Illinois-Wisconsin border for an hour-and-39-minute ride to Chicago — no small commitment for a high school junior.
And that’s only half of his commute.
Zachary lives on a small farm near Whitewater, Wis. He leaves home by 5:30 a.m., hops a ride with one of his parents to the Harvard train, decamps at Ogilvie Transportation Center, boards a school bus and arrives by 8:30 a.m. at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, where he takes a full load of college-preparatory classes and works toward his dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer.
After school, he arrives home around 9 p.m., at which point he feeds the family’s seven goats and tends to his other farm chores. Homework is mostly done on the train.
It’s a grueling schedule.
Zachary doesn’t begrudge it for an instant.
“My initial feeling when I came here was, ‘Oh my gosh, I fit in,’ ” he said.
No distance is too far, most of us will attest, to find where you belong.
Zachary began dancing at age 4. His dad would make playlists, and he’d sway and spin, finding an audience in the grown-ups who filled his parents’ living room. One of his mom’s friends spied his potential and urged her to sign Zachary up for classes at the Dance Factory, a small studio in Delavan, Wis.
By middle school, his talent was undeniable. In seventh grade, he earned a chance to perform with Royal Winnipeg Ballet School in its pre-professional program. He began dreaming of joining a ballet company full time one day.
School, however, was torture.
“I’m a dancer, and I’m bisexual,” he said. “Being a boy wearing tights isn’t really looked at as cool in a lot of places.”
He considered home schooling. He considered giving up ballet altogether if it would make the bullying stop.
“Maybe if I just drop it and do something a normal kid would do,” he recalled thinking.
A decade earlier, though, the Dance Factory had sent another student to the Chicago Academy for the Arts. Garth Johnson graduated from the high school in 2009, and Zachary’s mom was inspired to explore a similar path for Zachary.
“It has been my hope as a mother that each of my sons will find work, relationships and play that bring them joy,” Tracey Hall, Zachary’s mother, said. (Zach is the youngest of four boys.) “Zachary has been unique in that he seems to have found joy in movement and dance nearly as soon as he could walk, and he has rarely wavered in his passion.”
She couldn’t let that fade.
Zachary wasn’t immediately sold on the Chicago Academy for the Arts after his first visit. He was an eighth-grader at the time, and Chicago Avenue was a world away from the sounds and sights of his Wisconsin farm.
“I like being able to see the stars,” Zachary said. “I like to hear crickets.”
His parents also had their doubts.
“We initially couldn’t imagine investing our time in the commute,” she said. “We wondered how Zachary would be able to keep the commitment to the hours involved and how exhausted we might all be.”
Then they watched the senior-choreographed dance concert.
“After seeing them dance,” Zachary said, “I told my mom, ‘I need to be a part of that.’ ”
And now he is.
“Ballet is so incredibly disciplined and scientific and difficult to achieve,” said Randy Duncan, chair of the dance department at the Chicago Academy for the Arts. “It takes such dedication and such persistence to train the body to be in the physical shape that’s needed. Zachary absolutely has that.”
In early December, Zachary danced with fellow academy student Morgan Clune in the Midwest Youth Ballet Company’s production of “The Nutcracker” in Benton Harbor, Mich. He’s also a member of his school’s Repertory Dance Company, which means he travels to Chicago most Saturdays, as well.
“We certainly have days when we are all exhausted, and I have had mornings where I needed to pull over and nap before finishing my drive home,” Hall said. “But now that Zachary is midway through his junior year at CAA, I want time to slow down because I know I will miss this special time so much. I think his level of dedication calls us to be the best possible support we can be.”
Zachary is far from the school’s only commuter.
“About half of our students commute from outside the city,” head of school Jason Patera said. “Every year we have one or two from Indiana, one or two from Wisconsin, Kankakee, Naperville, Wilmette. Zach is definitely the winner this year in terms of distance.”
“It’s more than just feeling accepted here,” Zach said. “It’s feeling like everyone is cheering you on. It’s more than just being part of something. Everyone who’s part of it, we also feel like we’re important. It’s one of the best feelings that you can get to experience.”