John Spence: Axeman, karate master, fifth grade science teacher is your source for free news and information in Williamsburg, James City & York Counties.

(Courtesy John Spence)
(Courtesy John Spence)

When John Spence was in third grade, his class took a field trip to his house to explore the living museum he had started on his own from a collection of nature memorabilia.

He had filled an extra room with skulls and bones, sharks teeth, snake skins, birds’ nests, and anything else he could find on his outdoor adventures.

“Growing up, I was like the kid from ‘Old Yeller,’ always on my bike, out catching frogs and snakes,” he said. “I loved nature and being outdoors.”

Though his mother never allowed any live creature in the house, she did encourage her son’s love of nature by enabling him to establish his museum. These days, Spence still has plenty of reptiles and animals by his side as a fifth grade science teacher and coordinator of the Living Wedge Nature Center at Matoaka Elementary School. The center has caged snakes, turtles, bearded dragons, frogs, lizards, and other reptiles on display for the entire student body to learn from and enjoy, while Spence’s students assist him with caring for and feeding the animals. The Living Wedge was a project spearheaded by Spence and supported by the principal and the PTA.

“It’s been a great science enrichment vehicle and a great motivational tool for the students,” Spence said. “To be able to foster the same love for animals and reptiles in my students the way I had as a kid is a great feeling.”

It isn’t just reptiles that Spence adores. In July, he had the rare opportunity to get up close and personal with a cheetah, lion cubs, and other wildlife during a trip to Rhino Lion Park in South Africa.

“It was an incredible experience,” Spence said. “It’s hard to describe the feeling of being that close to these animals that I’ve only ever seen on TV or behind a glass window at the zoo. I will never forget it as long as I live.”

Spence made the trek to South Africa to teach karate. He is a seventh degree black belt and director for Shorin-Ryu Butokukan karate in the United States. He began studying traditional karate back in high school. He’s made multiple trips to Japan to further develop his skills and understanding of the martial art.

“I watched a lot of Bruce Lee movies as a kid, and I was always fascinated by it,” he said. “I started taking lessons at the rec center and fell in love with it. I wanted to delve deeper into my practice, so that is why I made my first journey to Japan.”

Spence started teaching karate in college, and opened up his own dojo, Shorin-Ryu Karate of Williamsburg, about ten years ago.

As if teaching fifth graders by day and karate students by evening weren’t enough, Spence is also a talented musician, playing frequently throughout the community with the band Dog Street Boys as well as solo as an acoustic artist. The Dog Street Boys will headline an ‘80s tribute concert at Kimball Theatre on Oct. 1. Spence began playing guitar at the age of eight.

“I’ve been doing music longer that I’ve done anything else,” Spence said. “It’s something dear to me. My parents and I didn’t watch TV when I was a kid. We would listen to their records, and I would listen to them sing and I would play air guitar.”

He feels blessed to live such a rich life.

I feel very, very lucky that I get to do so many things that I am passionate about,” he said. “I’m very happy to be filling my time with all the things that I like to do.”

Eventually, Spence would like to slow down, but for now he is looking forward to what the new school year brings.

“After twenty years of teaching, I’ve never gotten up and not wanted to come to school,” Spence said. “Teaching is the most rewarding thing. It is hard to call it an occupation because you build relationships with your students and you watch them grow. The students become as much a part of your life as you become a part of their lives.”

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