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.

"What really happened was that this was on the burner for a while," she notes. "We were going to do it after we talked to the kids and explained." Weisman goes on to point out that the school district's zone mechanic -- who oversees the school's custodians -- heard about the outside complaints and took matters into his own hands. "I was in a meeting, and by the time I came back it was done," Weisman recalls. "The zone mechanic thought he was doing us a favor."

Back in the classrooms, the children are still waiting for their explanation. "How would you feel if you spent a month doing a mural and somebody came and took it down?" asks Rozalie Petit-Frere, age thirteen.

"When they painted the murals over it was like getting slapped in the face," says John L. Sullivan, a talented twelve-year-old who plans on becoming a professional artist. "The school was a lot prettier with the murals. And it feels good when you're painting and somebody comes over and says, 'Good job.'"

The young artists find the idea that their paintings were somehow inappropriate for their age group ridiculous. "In today's society nothing is kept a secret," asserts thirteen-year-old Jonathan Goldman. "There are kindergartners who know about this stuff. In the streets you see [guns and drugs] in a bad way. In the murals you saw it in a good way. Now we're just left with the bad way."

The students claim that the murals actually reduced violence at the school. "When I see a mural like that it calms me down," says Eric Otera, who was beaten up on the grounds of Horace Mann last year by a group of boys who broke his ankle with a baseball bat. "There have been less fights here than last year. I see no bad messages. What? That guns are no good? The Constitution says that you have the right to freedom of speech, but I don't see that happening here."

Unaware of the situation at the school until informed by New Times, magnet program director Lilia Garcia says, "People criticized Michelangelo's work too, but that's no reason to destroy it. We have murals all over the [Dade County] schools. This doesn't sound right to me. I don't understand what happened."

Principal Weisman says that, in the future, student murals will be painted on canvas and then hung on the walls so that they never have to be destroyed. As for the lost paintings, she expresses the hope that the students will learn something from the experience. "I find that kids are really resilient and school mirrors life," she notes. "You can take this as a wonderful consensus-building lesson. Next time they can get parents to be the judges and have more community input into the murals.

"We live in a political world," she continues. "I think art is extremely important, and artists throughout centuries have dealt with criticism of their projects. You want them to know that sometimes this is the reality.

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