Patria-Kaye Aarons | STEM hasn’t made Jamaica famous
“You’ve got big dreams. You want fame. Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying ... in sweat.” - Lydia Grant
No episode of Fame could miss me as a child. In the 1980s, it was must-see TV. An entire series built around the lives of teenagers attending the fictitious New York City High School for the Performing Arts. The students devoted hours of training to their various art forms in the hopes of one day becoming superstars.
We got a glimpse into their lives: vignettes of inner-city struggles, first kisses, awkward self-discovery, and everything else teenagers go through.
Debbie Allen, as dance teacher Lydia Grant, was fierce (in a good way). She was my favourite part, pushing her students to attain nothing less than excellence with that big ‘80s do, fashion to the high heavens, and leg warmers.
The concept was novel to me. That school could teach subjects grounded in things other than the 3Rs my mother had learnt and my grandmother before her. That dancing and choir could be considered more than extra-curricular activities. As my own love for the stage developed in early adulthood, I came to learn that Fame was based on a real-life school. The LaGuradia High School of Music and Performing Arts was the inspiration.
Still standing today and producing greatness, the school boast alums like Jennifer Aniston from Friends, Wesley Snipes, Robert Di Niro, Nicki Minaj and the ‘Godfather’ himself, Al Pacino. On Sunday night, the school was made proud yet again. The 2019 Emmy Award for lead actor went to Jharell Jerome, a 21-year-old recent graduate of the school. So professional and rigorous was his high-school preparation that his portrayal of Kory Wise, one of the Exonerated Five, won him the highest accolade in the television industry. If you haven’t seen his award-winning performance from When They See Us, fix your life.
For a long time I’ve been thinking about schooling in Jamaica - about the value we place on STEM – science, technology, engineering, mathematics – and how we discard the value of all the other courses of study. How there’s a big misalignment between what Jamaica is famous for, how we earn our money as a country, and how adequately we prepare our people to do what comes naturally.
The orange economy is a big Jamaican employer, and yet it’s treated like the poor step-cousin. The reality is that so many transition into the cultural and creative industries directly from fifth form. They go there untrained and ill prepared to do anything else. And so begins the hustle.
We aren’t all cut from the same cloth. Some of our young people will never be life-saving doctors or criminal-defending lawyers, and that’s OK. They still deserve education skewed to what they’re good at. What a disservice we do to stifled musicians, forcing them to hold a test tube and Bunsen burner and never putting a saxophone in their hands. How tortured the next great choreographer must feel when no one gives her a stage but, instead, insists she crams history dates.
Imagine, instead, a Jamaican high school where you could elect to have a performing arts major. Where you learn to read music and play an instrument.
Where you learn acting and reacting techniques. Where you spend 10 hours a week in dance class because it is your area of focus. Where those who aren’t inclined to be the headliner can learn lighting, stage management, or costume design. It’s not beyond the capabilities of our 14- and 15-year-olds; they can do it.
I’m building the case for performing arts high schools in Jamaica. Expose our youngsters early to the business of entertainment. Groom them to be work-ready at 16. Hone their talents and watch Jamaica’s entertainment offerings explode. It’s time to stop forcing square pegs into round holes.
Education needs a shake-up. Every child must learn shouldn’t equate to every child must learn science.