By Carol Grimes
“Learning about and exposure to the arts should begin at an early age. In Jacksonville, we are immensely fortunate to have two centers of learning—Douglas Anderson School of the Arts and LaVilla School of the Arts—which bring that education and exposure to more than 2,500 young people every year, as well as to thousands of adults through their public programs and events.” ~ Preston Haskell
These words by arts patron Preston Haskell are found in the foreword of a new book hitting the market this fall. Chosen by Jane is a memoir of the life of Jane Condon, visionary principal who developed Douglas Anderson School of the Arts and LaVilla School of the Arts to nationally ranked status. The story carries the reader through her childhood in Jacksonville, graduation from Robert E. Lee High School, and stellar career in education.
The book’s primary focus is on her role in these two schools—gathering the teams, sharing the vision, recruiting students, and fighting the death squeeze of bureaucracy. However, this personal memoir takes on the backstory of the woman most known for her leadership and community-building skills. What kind of family life prepared her for her role? What inspired her to lead schools for the arts? How did her personal life impact her ability to take on daunting professional challenges? And what kind of person is Jane Condon, really?
Chosen by Jane answers these questions. Like her, it’s entertaining, a little outrageous, honest, and full of heart.
The significance of the title will be immediately clear only to those familiar with the “Chosen by Jane” buttons still worn by teachers initially hired for LaVilla School of the Arts. As Jane often says, “I put the fear of God into them when they interviewed, telling them they must be dedicated to their subject field and also to teaching children in middle school. I did not want to hire people who were using middle school as a stepping-stone for high school. These teachers must not only understand the quirks and craziness of early teens but love them for it. I was so proud of every teacher I brought in to LaVilla and profoundly touched to see how proud they were to be a part of this wonderful school.”
However, the significance of the title goes much deeper. Condon looks back on her life and recognizes that the results rest on the accumulation of hundreds of choices she has made. Her whole life has been the culmination of choosing one path among myriad other possibilities. Should she go for a law degree? Should she leave the South to live in Europe, alone? Should she marry a man who “on paper” looks like a disaster? Should she take on a professional challenge while faced with formidable family responsibilities?
As many memoirs do, Chosen by Jane starts out with her early memories and family relationships. These details are intrinsically interesting, but more importantly, they lay the foundation for the innate and environmental forces that prevail throughout her life. Condon consistently describes herself as “a willful child.” Cringe-worthy pranks bear this out in childhood, but it soon becomes clear that annoying early traits can serve a positive purpose when the adult is faced with barricades and resistance. As her vision for the schools clashed with entrenched bureaucracy, willful rejoinders such as “Watch me!” or “Tell me how I can do it, not why I can’t,” or “I want this graffiti off NOW. NOW!” paved the way for creativity and a standard of excellence not achieved by following all of the rules.