I received an email from the mother of one of my students last week, directing me to a news story involving her son. He and two other area youth created a mural in downtown Mount Clemens, in a public space by a fountain. They used sidewalk chalk â€“ the chunky kind that youâ€™d buy for a childâ€™s birthday party; the kind that washes away with plain water. While they were working, bypassers were commenting on their work. The students encouraged them to take part. The people who joined them came from all walks of life, including, at one point, a member of the Mount Clemens Downtown Development Authority. It was one of those rare unplanned, unannounced occurrences where, for a brief time, a community came together to create something, just because they could.
Iâ€™ve taken part in similar actions with my students. Once, in the early hours of the morning, we blanketed the streets of Ann Arbor in chalk silhouettes as part of The Shadow Project, in remembrance of Hiroshima. The following year, we did a similar project in Detroit with cornstarch and water. People we didnâ€™t know picked up brushes and joined us. Last year, we helped plan a â€œChalk and Talkâ€ at Wayne State University, inviting people to write something or to grab our bullhorn and step onto our soapbox to speak. The soapbox is a crudely painted recycled wooden crate that belongs to another of my students; she hauls it to various public events in Detroit. Itâ€™s nothing fancy – when itâ€™s not being used as a soapbox, it holds her music collection. She doesnâ€™t require people to clear their words with her before speaking. She simply wants them to express themselves, to tell each other what they are thinking. She wants to create dialog.
Thereâ€™s a street in Detroit, Heidelberg Street, where a local artist has taken over the sidewalks, vacant lots, and a small childrenâ€™s park. Tyree Guyton started The Heidelberg Project over 20 years ago, painting polka dots across the landscape, and building sculptures from recycled materials. The project draws over a quarter of a million visitors each year. Thereâ€™s no charge to enter; itâ€™s just a public place that has been transformed through his vision into a gathering spot. Strangers there talk to each other.
Twice, the city of Detroit has bulldozed sections of the project, claiming it was a blight on the city. Twice, Tyree has rebuilt, and he continues to expand it with the help of area school children and adult volunteers. Across the street from the project are vacant buildings that need to be torn down, but the city hasnâ€™t removed them. The folks from the project occasionally mark vacant buildings throughout Detroit with a large circle of paint, the iconic polka dot which has caused so much distress to our public officials.
Drive through the city and youâ€™ll see these dots â€“ a sort of cultural short-hand for â€œThis one here needs tearing down, why donâ€™t you bulldoze this?â€ I suspect the answer is that theyâ€™re not as concerned about the blight so much as the radical concept that the commons exist to be used. Not unobtrusively passed through, but actually used.
Such is the case in Mount Clemens, where these three artists are facing misdemeanor charges for defacing public property. The property wasnâ€™t â€œdefacedâ€ by the chalk, though. What they defaced was the myth that only professional artists for hire can create art in public spaces, and only after itâ€™s been submitted for review and authorized in writing from the top down. Matthew Abel, of the National Lawyer’s Guild, has offered to represent all three students pro bono.
As a teacher and parent, Iâ€™ve come across some peculiar notions of what it means to be â€œwell-behaved.â€ Itâ€™s sometimes synonymous with not being noticed â€“ in other words, having no deviation from the norm. Misbehaving is perceived as what happens when we wander into the extremes of our communityâ€™s bell curve. Weâ€™re offended when immigrants donâ€™t speak the â€œrightâ€ language. Homeowners Associations ensure that our homes look like our neighborsâ€™, and a door painted orange or a zucchini growing in the front yard is cause for alarm. In schools, we have â€œstandardizedâ€ tests to ensure that weâ€™re all learning the same information at the same pace, and can regurgitate it back in identical ways.
Sometimes misbehaving means deviating from rules, regardless of whether those rules have merit or not. A child who follows orders is good; a child with a mind of their own is bad, and itâ€™s important to train them young because when we grow older, a good employee is one who can follow the rules. An effective parent or teacher is someone who can make their children obey them. We have television shows to teach us how to do this. Educator and author Alfie Kohn writes: Supernanny‘s superficiality isn’t accidental; it’s ideological. What these shows are peddling is behaviorism. The point isn’t to raise a child; it’s to reinforce or extinguish discrete behaviors–which is sufficient if you believe, along with the late B.F. Skinner and his surviving minions, that there’s nothing to us other than those behaviors.â€
Most parents I know have a rule about not drawing on walls. Most children I know have gotten in trouble for breaking that rule. I drew on mine when I was supposed to be taking a nap once â€“ I made a glorious scribbly masterpiece, cleverly placed behind the door of my bedroom, so when my mother swung open the door to check on me, my work would be hidden. She found it immediately. My daughter was a wall-drawer. We gave her washable markers. The children who used to live here before me drew on walls. Inside our front closet, there is an up and a down button made of crayon, at just above knee level. Drawing on large surfaces is a basic human need. Food, water, shelter, drawing on large surfaces â€“ I am pretty sure thatâ€™s the list. It wouldnâ€™t surprise me if those white boards that line Americaâ€™s cubicles function as cave paintings on some level.
This is why I let kids write poems in permanent marker on the walls of my classroom. Itâ€™s why, when a student last year asked if she could paint on my wall, I said yes. We need to spend more time drawing on walls, and less time taking standardized tests. Iâ€™m not really interested in living in communities where people can use the commons – so long as they have no impact whatsoever on their neighborhood or on their neighbors. Iâ€™m even less interested in training students to not leave their mark on the world.