If it were not for the Baltimore School for the Arts, Amanda Johnson and La'Shelle Allen probably would never have crossed paths.
When the school was dedicated 10 years ago tomorrow, its founders had hopes of creating a place that would attract kids from throughout the city and beyond, all of whom would share a keen interest in music, theater, dance and the visual arts.
Today, the School for the Arts, located in the old Alcazar Hotel on Cathedral Street, is bursting with life. Its melting-pot population of 268 students has created a synergistic climate in which everyone is supposed to profit from the collective pursuit of the arts.
Johnson, the daughter of an acclaimed architect, and Allen, the daughter of a corrections officer, exemplify the school's diversity.
''It is a very broadening experience for a kid to get out of the provincial milieu they may come from and come into experiences that are different than what they see on a day-to-day basis at home,'' says David Simon, the school's director.
Johnson, 18, is a gifted visual artist with long, curly blond hair, dreamy green eyes and a hard-nosed view of her work. As she prepares for college and looks toward the future, Johnson scorns trendy art scenes and success for the sake of success: ''You do what you do, and don't let anyone influence you. Maybe someday you will be recognized. Maybe you won't. It's a risk. It's living on the edge,'' she says.
''I have sort have dealt with [the idea that] it's OK not to be successful, even though I've probably strived for it,'' Johnson continues. ''To a certain degree, it's OK not to get what you want. It may be the best thing.''
Allen, a 19-year-old mezzo-soprano and lead singer in several school opera productions, has a different take on her future. With signature dramatic flair, she vows, ''After about six years of spade work, I'm going to win the Pavarotti national competition, do a show with him and an all-star cast that airs on public television, and I'll watch it every year.''
Although their goals differ, Johnson and Allen hold much in common. They stand out in their talent and determination. And at a time when young people tend to cluster, Johnson and Allen are independent. They hone their privacy with a wisdom few teens own.
Neither is afraid to speak her mind, both have a gut instinct for detecting sincerity, and a soft spot for working with children. Johnson has taught at her old elementary school, and when she had more time, Allen baby-sat often. ''As soon as I was learning a language, they were learning a language,'' she says of her former charges.
On a crisp Monday afternoon, Johnson, dressed in a blue tie-dyed dress and argyle socks turned inside out, has presented teacher Louis Flores with a portfolio of her mixed-media work, created at home and in her sunny, seventh-story studio at the school.
They work together to sharpen the questions her portraits, done in pastels, tempera and felt markers, are intended to convey. ''What do you want to do about these victims?'' Flores asks, referring to two works. In one, a lone, sorrowful woman gazes away from the viewer. In another, Johnson has painted a sea of plaintive eyes on a straw place mat.
Softly, he advises Johnson to narrow the scope of her vague social statement about need and neglect, and summarizes her work so far this semester. ''You don't seem as timid as you did in the first part of the quarter.'' Flores praises the high quality of her work and concludes by asking Johnson to take more risks.
All of Johnson's life, the appreciation and creation of art has been as natural as breathing. Her father, Henry Pinkney Johnson, is an architect with an ornate and eccentric sensibility. Her mother, Leitner Winstead, is a fashion seamstress with an elite clientele.
''Everywhere I look in my life there's art, nothing else. It's not that I don't have a choice, it's what I've grown up with,'' Johnson says.
Because of the encouragement she has received so far, adjusting to the academic and artistic rigors of the School for the Arts was ''really comfortable,'' Johnson says. She knows it is not so easy for others. ''A lot of people don't have that. I'm very aware of it. . . . I'm very lucky to have the opportunities. I work very hard; that's how you keep yourself from feeling guilty about those things.''
At first it was difficult for Johnson to persuade her parents to allow her to audition for the School for the Arts, where about 100 out of 500 applicants are accepted every year. Johnson steered them from the perception of the school as ''too free'' academically to the perception of the school as ''wonderful and great.''
As a participant in TWIGS (To Work in Gaining Skills), an afternoon school program for fifth to eighth graders at the School for the Arts, Johnson had seen up close the school's artistic energy. It was a world apart from St. Paul's School for Girls, where Johnson attended seventh and eighth grades.