Mural Imperative

Two school security guards in green T-shirts and khaki pants stand inside the doorway of Horace Mann Middle School as a group of seventh graders excitedly gather around a large mural painted in the front hallway. The face of a young man with a determined expression stares out from the painting on the wall, surrounded by an assortment of colorful pills, syringes, and liquor bottles, all of which the artists have crossed out with big black Xs. Above those images are the words "The Further You Say No, The Further You Can Go." On the other side of the hallway, a painting with the slogan "Life Is Fun Without a Gun" shows two figures holding hands as they walk toward the sun. On another wall, a third mural proclaims, "Don't Fight, Think Right."

William King, the Horace Mann teacher who worked with his students on the murals as a project for his computer art class last spring, asks the children for ideas for more paintings to decorate the yellowish concrete walls of the school's long, empty hallways. One twelve-year-old girl wearing baggy shorts and sporting a carefully crafted ponytail suggests peer pressure as a topic. She proposes making a picture of a gun-wielding gang on one side and a kid standing alone on the other; the painting would read, "Don't Follow the Wrong Crowd."

Horace Mann, located at 8950 NW Second Ave. in El Portal, is one of Dade County's 57 magnet schools. Created two decades ago, the magnet program was conceived to boost racial integration by offering special classes at certain area schools in order to attract a diverse student body from different parts of the city. But at Horace Mann, which Dade County Public Schools' magnet programs director Lilia Garcia calls the school system's "shining light in technology," most of the more than 2000 students come from the neighboring areas of Liberty City, Miami Shores, and El Portal. These include students who live in Larchmont Gardens, a nearby housing project known for incidents of gang violence. Black American and Haitian children make up the vast majority of the school's student population, followed, in terms of numbers, by Hispanics and a handful of whites.

King, a 27-year-old graphic designer and artist who moved to Miami from Palm Beach last year, teaches five computer art classes a week to 180 students, who range from talented future artists to apathetic gang members reluctantly marking time in school. What the students learn in King's class will enable some of them to go on to specialized high schools such as DASH (Design and Architecture Senior High) or New World School of the Arts and will endow others with the computer literacy that one student told King he saw as "the key to the white man's world."

Instead of teaching specific skills or leading his students through textbook exercises, King assigns the children monthlong multimedia projects, which they begin by making sketches on Apple computers in the classroom. This year they will create short films with a computer animation program. Last year his sixth grade class made video clips about violence and AIDS prevention, which were shown at a morning assembly.

"The students' work reflects what they deal with in their everyday world," King says. "They express themselves, and they know what they're expressing, and to me that's what art is about."

The hallway mural project was the students' most ambitious assignment of the 1994-95 school year. While about 40 children worked on the antidrug design that was selected by the students from several classmates' proposals, others helped King shoot a video of the mural makers and then edit it by computer. An MTV-style clip set to the hit antiviolence song "Waterfalls" by the group TLC, it first shows the students lined up carefully side by side against the wall as they draw and paint, and later grinning as they triumphantly pose in front of the finished mural.

But their faces were not so joyful on the morning of Wednesday, November 1, just a week after King's class met in the hallway to talk about ideas for new murals. The children arrived at school that day to find that the existing paintings had disappeared. The hallway had been covered with a fresh coat of paint. The walls were blank.

"I felt dead when I saw that they were taking the murals away," says twelve-year-old Eric Otera, who worked on the paintings. "They at least should have told us what was going on."

What happened is still not exactly clear. King learned that the murals had been painted over only when a group of distraught children came running into his classroom to tell him. Horace Mann principal Enid Weisman later told him that an unidentified community member had complained to the district superintendent's office about the content of the artworks.

Reached at the school, Weisman confirms that there had been complaints about the murals. "It was ongoing for a couple of months," she notes. She pegs the protesters as community members and parents who belong to the school's PTA, but she refuses to elaborate further on either their identities or the precise nature of their complaints. Weisman adds that the murals were always meant to be temporary and that the entire building was being repainted, including the hallways. But when pressed she admits that eradicating the murals was a mistake.

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