After more than 30 years, Leslie Shepard says goodbye to the Baltimore School for the Arts
The veteran educator's last year on the job challenged her and rewarded her like no other
Leslie Shepard, retiring director of the Baltimore School for the Arts, looks over one of the thank you cards she is writing as she prepares to leave after 32 years at the school. The "Thank You" sign on the wall and star decorations were gifts from her staff. (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore Sun / July 1, 2011)
Seventeen-year-old Bilal Smith had his back to his dance instructor at the Baltimore School for the Arts. As she demonstrated a movement sequence to the class, Bilal bent from the waist, ran his hands up and down his legs and began to rhythmically twitch his buttocks: Left. Right. Left, right, left.
The room became silent. "I was just stretching," Bilal said.
"You can just leave," the teacher replied.
The door clicked shut behind the teen's retreating back — and the sound registered on Leslie Shepard, the school's director, with the sharp precision of a slap.
In the 32 years that Shepard has spent at the school, including 11 as its head, "I don't think I've ever tried so hard with any student," she said.
But she was running out of creative options. When she talked with her staff about Bilal — as she did at least weekly — Shepard's eyes drifted to the side as though searching for a more reassuring sight.
"This year is so critical for him," she said. "He's writing his future right now."
In contrast, Shepard's school calendar was rapidly reaching its last page. The 2010-2011 academic year — her last with the school — posed some of the most formidable challenges of her career, including teacher layoffs and student protests. But it also brought some of the most enduring joys.
"This was the most difficult year I've ever been through," Shepard said. "But even on the worst days, I would get so inspired watching these kids blossom that my heart was bursting when I got home."
Shepard's world has been the school that she's helped shape since 1978, and which boasts such well-known graduates as actress Jada Pinkett Smith, rapper Tupac Shakur and fashion designerChristian Siriano.
On Friday, Shepard's whole world changed.
Making things work
The director strode into the dance studio.
The atmosphere was subdued. Some teens stood at the barre with arms clasped; others sat with their legs in V's, the bottoms of their soft pink shoes scuffed and dirty.
On Sept. 8, Shepard informed school board officials that she would retire at the end of the year. Since then, the staff had picked up a muted worry underlying the students' everyday chatter about homework, auditions and recitals. So the director (a term that Shepard prefers to "principal" because of its associations with performing) visited each arts class — eight in all — to explain her decision.
One girl asked Shepard why she was leaving.
"How old are you?" Shepard inquired.
"Sixteen," the girl replied.