In fact, she hated her first shop class in technical theater at the Governor’s School for the Arts.
But now? The 16-year-old from Smithfield just finished up being the master carpenter for the school’s production of “The Taming of the Shrew.”
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, she was the one sawing boards for scenery and figuring out what was needed to bring a vision to life. Hair tied back in a ponytail, plaid sleeves rolled up, protective glasses on, she was all business.
“I like how tangible it is,” Babyak said, taking a break from dragging boards to a table saw and using a staple gun to piece together a shelf. “I like being able to feel my work with my hands and see it come from almost nothing into something – to make something useful.”
It’s not an unusual sight as you climb the six flights of stairs at the public arts school in downtown Norfolk.
Turn a corner and you can hear actors rehearsing for an upcoming show, or dancers counting steps. Sounds of the piano, the orchestra, the bass guitar and the saxophone all spill into the hallway. Drawings and paintings cover the walls, from the classroom number labels to the windows themselves.
This year the school is celebrating 30 years of educating students from eight regional localities. It’s been an evolution; just a few years ago the programs were spread all over the city. Today they fill two adjacent historic buildings with music stands and dance studios, kilns and pianos.
One thing that hasn’t changed: the feeling among students that they’ve finally found their place.
“A lot of these students, they’ll describe themselves as being ‘the weird art kid,’ ” said Liana Graham, a teacher and department chair whose children all attended the Governor’s School.
“So I think they grow up feeling very outside of the box because they have this intense passion for whatever their art form is, whether it’s music or dance or visual arts. Then they come here and realize they’re amongst peers and basically family members of the same like-mindedness passion for art, and they realize they’re not freaks, they’re not weird for being in love with what they do.
“And they’re very much nurtured by other students and their instructors.”
Take Babyak, who turned back to giggle over shelf building instructions written on a whiteboard. She said she’s been able to express herself in a way she didn’t even know she could. She was craving an experience, and she found it.
“I felt like I belonged here before I came here,” she said.
Olivia Morgan danced for six years before she went to the Governor’s School. So she thought she knew what to expect in a dance class.
In her blue leotard and her hair tied up in a bun, Morgan on that same Wednesday took a spot in the front row of the mirrored-wall studio. With about two dozen other girls – and one boy – she raised her arms over her head and extended her legs gracefully. The ballerinas moved to the beat of a drum, played by a musician in the back of the room.
At this school, the shy 16-year-old from Virginia Beach can perfect her technique and learn different styles of dance, from ballet to jazz to modern, along with pilates and yoga. It’s been a way for her to come out of her shell, she said.
“Dance was a way to speak when I felt like I didn’t have a voice,” Morgan said.
When she started at the school her freshman year, she was both excited and nervous about upping her dance game. Like other Governor’s School students, she splits her days between a home high school and afternoons at the Governor’s School. She auditioned to get into the dance track.
“Here, they really push you to do better,” she said. “They want what’s best for you.”
Her dream job would be to perform at Disney World someday because she loves entertaining people, especially children. She remembers what it was like watching Disney’s dancers when she was little.
“When I would go and watch the parades, it was grand and this amazing thing,” she said.
“To be on the other side, it’s a good feeling.”
A few classrooms away, Jaellyn Otero, a freshman from Virginia Beach, was sculpting a head.
It needed to be from a particular time period, and it needed to convey a personality trait to satisfy the requirements of her ceramics class.
A few rows over, a group of students worked on their heads, too. One was making an owl. Another debated how to make the surface smoother. It was a sunny day and light streamed in through floor-to-ceiling windows.
Otero gave her head large eyes – something she said is her signature. She used a tool to mold the eyes just so.
At the Governor’s School, she said, she wanted to try different mediums to create her art. Previously she mostly used pen and paper. Now she does sculpting, fiber arts and other 3-D projects.
She said art is a way to express how she feels about the world. She’s not sure she wants to pursue art as a career, but she enjoys what she’s learning.
Graham says it’s important to foster creativity, whether students go into the arts as a career, or become supporters of arts in their community.
“No matter what job you have, it’s going to be helpful for you to have some sort of creative, healthy outlook for you to express your emotions,” she said.
Her daughter, Ishiah White, for example, turned her experience graduating from the Governor’s School in 2011 into a culinary career. She got a full ride to the Rhode Island School of Design and is now the head baker at Commune, a pair of farm-to-table restaurants in Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
“I really feel like it is mini-sculpture,” she said, describing rolling croissants and making multi-tiered wedding cakes.
She also teaches fiber arts – knitting, sewing, sculptural fabric – at the Governor’s School. Because she knows what it’s like to be a student there, and out “in the real world,” she said she can give guidance on selling art or pursuing jobs.
“I try to use myself as an example,” she said.
Downstairs and a building over from Otero, Austin Overstreet tapped his black sneaker on the floor and nodded his head along with the music. In this jazz class, the students were jamming. But they were also critiquing each other.
Overstreet, 15, plays the tenor sax. Standing behind his music stand, he ran his fingers up and down the gold instrument. When he wasn’t playing, he snapped his fingers along with the music.
The sophomore from Southampton County has played the saxophone since he was in fifth grade, but picked up the tenor sax only last year. It makes a kind of “yeah, in your face” sound, compared to baritone and alto saxes, he said.
Maybe he’ll be a professional musician someday – he thinks about it sometimes. But maybe he won’t. Either way, he said, music will always be in his life.
So he just focuses on getting better. That’s why he said he’s more comfortable playing in the classroom than onstage: Here he can practice, and learn and grow.
“When you’re here, it’s a lot tougher, but it pushes you to be better than you were.”
Robyn Sidersky, 757-222-5117, firstname.lastname@example.org