“Look fear in the face and do the things you think you cannot do…"
Several months ago, my 10th grade students and I studied the film, Pleasantville, a 1998 film that examines important issues of conservatism, conformity, change, and growing up. The film revolves around two teenagers, played by Toby Maquire and Reese Witherspoon, who get sucked into a 1950s black and white television sitcom, and a world of old-fashioned values, sameness, and perfection. As they live in this world, they begin to introduce the people of Pleasantville to the progressive forms of 'color' in our modern day society, causing conflict and controversy between the old and new ways of thinking.
In the middle of this film, after Pleasantville is turned upside down and people begin to lose sight of what's best for themselves and their community, two of the main characters paint a mural. A big, bright, and bold piece of artwork, full of symbols and colorful imagery of the literal and figurative meanings behind their beloved Pleasantville.
At the culmination of the film, we discussed the purpose of a mural as a creative, artistic, and sometimes social statement of the life and times of a particular community of people. Murals communicate the ideals, challenges, and dreams of a given environment, oftentimes during a time of struggle, change, and uncertainty. And because in many ways, our 'Pleasantville' was in the middle of a great fight, we sought to express our color wheel of feelings in our own class mural.
This mural became our Friday ritual. Every Friday, we'd pull out our paints, play some music, and sketch, paint, and talk as classmates and as friends. This 10th grade class that I've come to know so well over the past two years, grew together through our adversity and painted a mural that became part of our healing process.
While we didn't know what would come of the mural, just like what would come of our school, we continued to paint, just as we've continued to fight, with courage and conviction, the past three months. Sometimes we laughed, sometimes we cried, and sometimes we just quietly painted our piece of history on this blank piece of canvas.
It was wonderful to see this piece of art progress over the past several weeks, and wonderful to see how the students worked together toward our common goal. Some students sketched, and others painted. Some searched and searched for the perfect quotes, and others collected important news articles from the past three months, burned the edges, and turned their words into leaves on our mural's tree.
The tree on our mural represents the firm foundation of Price Lab's legacy. The roots are strong, with quotes from NU's 'Caring Community' and Alma Mater intertwined amidst their thick limbs. Growing out of the roots is a beautifully sketched tree, with two students embracing as the steady trunk of the tree. Half of our tree is ripening and flourishing with the legacy and memory of our school --- a basketball to remember our four-year State run, a computer to remember our cyber defense teams, and an airplane flying overhead with a banner that reads '#wearenu,' the hashtag used to feverishly express pride in our school in the days following the announced closure.
The other half of the tree symbolizes the reality we now face, a reality that lies out of our control. There are quotes from our favorite class reads, Catcher in the Rye, The Hunger Games, and To Kill a Mockingbird, and my favorite symbol, a large hand stretching into the mural, moving a single chess piece on a spiral chess board, complete with all the school colors of the districts absorbing our students. This, paired with Peeta Mellark's quote from The Hunger Games, "I'm not just a piece in their game," is one of my favorite symbols on the mural - a symbol that represents the notion that life sometimes seems like a cruel game, in which Holden Caulfield replies...
"Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game, all right - I'll admit that. But if you're on the other side, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game..."
As I look at this mural and reflect on its process, I think about my own bank of emotions during the last few days and months as a teacher at Price Lab. A mural seems to be a fitting representation of my emotions, my memories, and my nostalgia in these final days at this most magical school...
These are the images I will remember - the images I will take with me on this next journey and chapter of my professional life...
...a final day at Adventureland with some of the sweetest kids ever. I will always remember riding 'The Space Shot' with a very nervous Anna, and Spenser extending his hand to help me out of my seat after riding 'The Tornado' together. I will always remember sharing ear buds and listening to French rap with Noemie on the bus ride home, and telling Shirley that she was definitely NOT allowed to take a nap in the overhead bins on our charter bus.
...34 typed notes for every student in my 10th grade class. On the eve before my final full day as a teacher at Price Lab, it finally hit me - this flood of emotion I was secretly desiring to meet head on. I cried and typed --- 34 personal notes to a very special group of students. I typed them, matted them, and stuck them in 34 individual envelopes for 34 individual students...students who will now be the faces that fill my memory bank when I think of my last class at NU High...
...a toast to remember and reflect (with sparkling cider of course). I wanted our last class to be memorable, one we look back on fondly as a class. What I didn't expect to get was a group of amazing kids, pouring their hearts, their fears, and their tears on a piece of paper, looking into the eyes of their classmates, and expressing how much they have meant to one another during these years as Price Lab students. I had the students write toasts, 2-3 sentences they would like to say to their peers on their last day of regular classes at NU. I wasn't sure if they would think it was cheesy, or sappy, or over-dramatic, but was pleasantly surprised to see them begin writing almost immediately. We sat in a circle, passed around glasses of Gingerale and sparkling soda, and told stories of our time at this incredible school. We laughed, we cried, and if you were Colt, you did both at the same time.
It was sad, and many tears were shed, but it was an important day for all of us. Stories of moving from school to school and finally finding a home at Price Lab, or memories of being there for one another during times even more tragic than our school's closing were shared. Pages were read from Noemie, our student visiting from France, who talked individually about every single student in her class, and our day ended with Alex's poetic call to not dwell on the sadness, but focus on "the joy of the people we have all grown to love."
On Friday afternoon, after the last student left my classroom, a former NU grad walked in to check out our mural. When I asked him to name the one thing he has taken with him and remembered about his school during the last two years of college, he replied with, 'that's easy...
I am so grateful to have been a part of this family the past five years. I've learned more than I ever dreamed possible as a teacher, as a leader, and as a friend.