Leslie Shepard, retiring director of the Baltimore School… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
The boy in the black leotard was throwing yet another temper tantrum.
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.
"Well, I've been at this school twice as long as you've been alive," Shepard said.
In fact, she's been involved since the institution existed only on paper. Shepard was a member of the task force set up by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer to plan a pre-professional high school for singers, actors, dancers, musicians and visual artists. And for much of the three decades that followed, she worked virtually nonstop.
Shepard came in on Saturdays to check on the roughly 700 elementary school pupils enrolled in TWIGS, a series of free arts classes. If she wasn't attending a school performance on a weekend night, she might be escorting a potential donor to an art gallery opening featuring a school alumnus.
Asked about the last time she took a sick day, Shepard thought hard for several seconds. "I might have had the flu one year," she said.
Shepard retains the compact figure of the dancer she once was. She wears dangly jewelry in strong, abstract shapes and is teased about her penchant for stiletto heels.
But though she appears years younger, Shepard is 63 and exhausted. (She'd initially planned on retiring in June 2009, at the end of her 30th year. But when two veteran administrators departed that spring, she decided to cushion the jolt to the school by postponing her exit.)
Besides, she was living so much through her work that she was in danger of starving the part of herself that exists independently from the Baltimore School for the Arts.
"You have to devote yourself 150 percent to this job to do it right," she said. "I'm ready to not have the all-encompassing, enormous responsibility of being the head of the school 24/7. I take that responsibility mighty seriously. I wake up at night thinking, 'What do I have to accomplish tomorrow? What do I have to fix?'"
Everyone at the school knows that Shepard has a thing for Jiminy Cricket. A framed photo of the cartoon character signed by Walt Disney hung in her wood-paneled office, and her favorite song is "When You Wish Upon a Star."
That might seem out of character for such a sharp-eyed realist, but there's no denying that Shepard has led a Jiminy Cricket sort of life. She was constantly dashing after yet another boy or girl who was brimming with potential but in danger of wandering astray. During the past three decades, Shepard helped thousands of artistically gifted Baltimore teens into adulthood.