On Painting School Walls: A Love Story

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On Painting School Walls: A Love Story

Written by: Beth Benedix

June 5, 2024

29 minutes and 37 seconds into “North Putnam,” Bucky Kramer, principal of North Putnam Middle School, says the thing I had felt viscerally when I first encountered North Putnam School Corporation in 2017 after receiving a grant to extend Castle programming into the district : “It’s different here.  It’s just different,” Bucky says.  “It’s like a family.” Sitting at a table at Starbucks with Jason Chew and Alan Zerkel, the current and former high school principals who made the drive to Greencastle to brainstorm ways to create opportunities for North Putnam students, I felt that difference, that familiarity, in their good-natured back-and-forth teasing and in their “yes-saying” approach to every idea we came up with.  I found it particularly noteworthy that they quickly determined that the area of greatest student need was at the primary level—rather than claim our limited organizational resources for the high school, they directed me to the two elementary school principals, suggesting we start there so we could build a relationship with the kids that we could nurture through their graduation. 

It was this spirit of culture-building that made it a no-brainer to feature NPSC when director Joel Fendelman and I joined forces in 2019. Our goal was to create a documentary that would help people to understand the stakes of supporting our public schools, particularly in rural communities, by capturing a year-in-the-life of a rural school district and the community it serves.  Thus launched a four-year adventure (the film was completed in October 2023) that gave me the chance to observe the deeply intersectional nature of public education and community development and to be embedded in a school district that I have come to revere in so many ways.

“Culture-building is slow, deliberate, patient, messy work.”

Culture-building is slow, deliberate, patient, messy work. It starts with being able to envision the kind of interactions you hope will fill the space, the kind of energy, the values you hope to instill, the shared sense of what matters and why. It’s backwards-design in the clearest sense:  knowing where you want to go, figuring out the way to get there and recognizing (and embracing) that the getting there is going to involve trial and error.  When it works, the results feel authentic and somehow timeless. People forget how much intention went into the original creation of the thing.  It takes on its own life, self-sustaining, coherent, palpable.

“When it works, the results feel authentic and somehow timeless. People forget how much intention went into the original creation of the thing.  It takes on its own life, self-sustaining, coherent, palpable.”

It works at NPSC. 

It’s the cumulative nature of decisions and gestures that reflect NPSC’s human-centered approach and that result in the culture of care we attempted to document in the film. Some of these decisions are downright revolutionary in the context of this extended moment of unprecedented attack on our national public schools and the choking out of designated resources—like the decision to pilot a fully co-taught general education 3rd grade classroom as an alternative to holding back 18 kids.  Despite pushback, the superintendent, school principal and co-teachers fashioned a classroom that provided the space for these students not only to meet, but exceed several times over, the prescribed reading levels.  Some of the decisions are quieter and have been sustained over decades, like the practice of painting the walls of North Putnam High School.

Wall Mural
Photo courtesy of the author.

So many walls, painted in so many ways:  the historic “Cougar Pride” wall that has collected graduating seniors’ signatures since 1998, which have long since spilled over onto adjacent walls that keep getting added as others fill up; the “Zerkel” wall, honoring Alan Zerkel’s 21-year tenure as principal, painted at Jason Chew’s request, with enthusiastic participation from students; multiple murals, designed and executed by art students with guidance from art teacher, Sarah Sims, and inspired by the Putnam County Mural Project; the wall adjacent to the auditorium, a playbill and traditional theater mask welcoming audiences into a space where they might suspend disbelief; countless quotes from thinkers/artists/authors from Mark Twain to the Dalai Lama peppering the upper perimeter of most hallways, a Key Club project spanning 15-20 years and counting, the quotes often resulting in consultation with the teachers whose classrooms they frame.  “These quotes are a living tradition.  They help students recenter themselves and give inspiration,” Jason explains. “If words are so important, let’s paint them on a wall so they’re a little harder to hide.”

This transparency, this idea that nothing should be hidden, suffuses the building.  For instance, Jason described to me the school-wide conversations that ensued when a student circulated a petition to stop the student mural project because he felt the process didn’t adequately involve the entire student body.  There had been a committee made up of teachers and staff, but not students, to choose which designs the teams of art students presented would go up on the walls.  As is characteristic of Jason—who we capture in the film (in one of my favorite scenes) meeting with the entire sophomore class to get their feedback about issues they feel most need to be addressed at the school. My two sons, who attend a different high school, responded to the scene with a stunned, “wait, he actually asked their opinions and then listened to them??”—he turned the situation into an opportunity for community building.  “[The student] asked me, ‘who is this art for? Kids or teachers?’ I acknowledged that he was right to ask that… and we learned a lesson that we needed to include students in the decision-making process… but it also created an opportunity to have difficult and complicated conversations about what it means to silence the arts historically.  I think these conversations empowered the artists.”  In a delightful subversion of his own power, Jason has been quietly instigating students to create “guerilla” art (in the tradition of Banksy).  “I want people to be like, ‘woah, where did that come from?!’” He’s adamant about using every possible opportunity to “spark curiosity, get kids to think about the arts and appreciate beauty.”  “Whimsy happens,” he says.  “You never know when or how.  I want the kids to know that [this school] is a place where magic happens.”

I get verklempt a lot.  It’s embarrassing when it happens in public, as it does when I try to communicate my deep admiration for the humans at NPSC who have built a culture out of magic-making.  Who recognize intuitively that magic-making is tied to eliciting and celebrating and preserving students’ voices.  It is all the more striking because there are schools with greater material resources than NPSC that don’t seem to recognize this.  It is striking that, at the same time that Jason is nurturing a culture of self-expression, telling incoming freshmen on day one, “this building is you… it will only go as far as you take it… we want it to represent what you care about,” there is another high school, in the course of a massive construction project, made the decision to literally paint over a series of walls that theatre students had ritually signed for decades, wiping out generations of pearls of wisdom, inspiration, humor and motivation intended for future students.  This decision certainly wasn’t meant to be malicious, but it represents a literal and symbolic erasure of an organic culture built over time around a shared set of passions. The loss of that collective history—collected there, on those walls that meant so much to so many people—is heartbreaking.  In an extension of this loss and for no discernible reason, the teachers at this school have been told to keep the walls empty.  No whimsy, no murals, no magic. 

But let’s not dwell there.  This is a love story, after all, about a school district that manifests its “it’s just different here-ness” in ways both big and small, often with paint on walls.  This year, a prominent wall adjacent to the staircase in Bucky’s middle school became the newest space designated for students to leave a mark:  fashioned after a brick subway wall, students are invited to scrawl their thoughts graffiti-style as they pass by. 

And they do.  They know it’s a space where their thoughts matter.



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  • Beth Benedix

    Beth Benedix is Professor Emerita of World Literature, Religious Studies and Community Engagement at DePauw University, and Founder and Director of The Castle, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to providing learning experiences for students where they feel seen, heard, valued and empowered and supporting teachers in creating environments that spill over with joy, creativity, relevance, rigor and authenticity. A prolific writer, her most recent book, The Post-Pandemic Liberal Arts College: A Manifesto for Reinvention (co-authored with Steve Volk) has contributed to a national conversation about higher education and her third book, Ghost Writer (A Story About Telling a Holocaust Story), was named a finalist for the 2019 Next Generation Indie Awards. She is currently completing a documentary, "North Putnam," with an award-winning production team, including Dave Eggers (executive producer) and Joel Fendelman (director).

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