Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
After high school, Nicholeen DeGrasse told her parents she wanted to be a dancer. They said no way.
Nevertheless, she enrolled as a student of the School of Dance, now one of the six schools comprising the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts (EMC). Her mother stopped speaking to her for almost six months.
That's how, laughing, the EMC principal recently described the beginning of her dance career. Nicholeen did well at the school and, by the time of her graduation (at which she was valedictorian), her parents had long since come around to accepting her choice.
She later joined the faculty of the School of Dance, then became its director. And since February 1 last year, Mrs DeGrasse Johnson has been principal of the EMC, with its constituent Schools of Dance, Visual Arts, Drama, Music, Arts Management and Humanities, in addition to the Continuing Education and Allied Programmes.
At the door of the principal's office is a framed copy of the college's mission statement. It reads: "To enrich the aesthetic sensibilities and promote the cultural diversity of the Caribbean through highest quality education and training in the visual and performing arts."
She agreed that it is a huge remit, and revealed some of the challenges she has faced running the government-funded institution with its multimillion-dollar budget and nearly 1,000 full and part-time student population. Lack of resources, she said, was the main one, and cited the example of the Music School's Room 13.
In mid-February last year, with DeGrasse Johnson just two weeks in her post, music school students complained about the smelly, mouldy, possibly leaking and certainly unusable Room 13. Despite extensive efforts there are still problems with the room.
The Gleaner wondered if Room 13's problems are symbolic of those of the rest of the college. It appears not, for other challenges have been met successfully.
The college cafeteria, which had been a magnet for complaints for years, has been shut down (by the Ministry of Health) and Island Grill is now providing meals for the students, though on a part-time basis. Inadequate wireless Internet access, a shortage of computers in the library and the computer lab's early closing hours have also been addressed.
There are now wireless routers around the campus, 12 more computers in the library, and the computer lab now stays open until midnight, the principal said.
Still needed, though, is a college bus to help students to get home, especially those rehearsing until late at night. DeGrasse Johnson said acquisition "is in the system".
The college's newest teaching centre, the School of Arts Management and Humanities, currently faces a space problem. However, the principal zeroed in on less tangible, more philosophical issues.
The idea of the EMC was a brilliant one, she said earnestly and animatedly, long, painted fingernails flashing. It was the concept of "visionaries" who knew we are creative individuals. "When you see how Jamaicans tun them han an mek fashion, you're amazed," she said.
Choosing her words carefully because she didn't want to be "political", DeGrasse Johnson said: "When we realise we are part of a vision, we have to plan strategically. We have to understand the role of Government and people who make decisions.
"I was a student. I became member of faculty, a director and now principal. At each stage, I felt that the persons who ultimately make decisions for education, culture, the arts, do not understand the role and purpose of an Edna Manley College. That's not a political statement."
She enunciated the role of the college as she saw it - both national and regionally - in education, self-discovery, tolerance, violence reduction, community development and an appreciation of beauty. "We're truly a powerful institution if we're used well by educators, in terms of how we educate our children. Remember, the arts allow us to first feel, to find self. No matter what age you are, you have to connect with who you are.
"At some point you learn to tolerate the next person, because you understand who you are. It's not about your insecurities any more. We need to teach our children like that to lessen the chance of persons being violent and selfish in their actions, because we now understand the self and our role, so you're not validated by someone else or a system. We're able to help in the social services. We allow for community development; we allow for the scholarship that is necessary to engage these types of dialogue. And then we have the product, which is the art, that allows us to see the beauty around us."
Unfortunately, she said, it's not only decision makers who do not fully understand the roles and functions of the college. Nor do many students - at least, when they enter the institution. Happily, many learn. DeGrassse Johnson spoke enthusiastically of many graduates of the School of Dance, currently including lecturer at the School and National Dance Theatre Company member Oniel Pryce who, according to one lecturer, "couldn't even point" when he first started. Pryce not only graduated from the school but went on to earn a master's degree in dance.
DeGrasse Johnson continues to teach because "it's important to keep connected to what's going on with the students". She would still choose dance if she had to select a career all over again, as "I found my voice through dance".
And is she optimistic about the future of the college? "Yes, I am, I am," DeGrasse Johnson replied. She paused and repeated: "I am."