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Student mural of MLK given new life at Ryan Road School

  • Anthony Gonzalez, left, and Jacob Renner, both students in Ann Desmond's current fourth grade class at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Northampton, view a mural produced for a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration several years ago by a previous fourth grade class of Desmond's. It is now displayed in a hallway outside of the gymnasium.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Anthony Gonzalez, left, and Jacob Renner, both students in Ann Desmond's current fourth grade class at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Northampton, view a mural produced for a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration several years ago by a previous fourth grade class of Desmond's. It is now displayed in a hallway outside of the gymnasium.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • This is a mural created several years ago by students in a former fourth grade class of Ann Desmond's at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Northampton for a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. It has recently been unrolled and mounted in the hallway outside of the gymnasium.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    This is a mural created several years ago by students in a former fourth grade class of Ann Desmond's at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Northampton for a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. It has recently been unrolled and mounted in the hallway outside of the gymnasium.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • This a detail of a mural created several years ago by students in a former fourth grade class of Ann Desmond's at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Northampton for a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. It has recently been unrolled and mounted in the hallway outside of the gymnasium.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    This a detail of a mural created several years ago by students in a former fourth grade class of Ann Desmond's at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Northampton for a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. It has recently been unrolled and mounted in the hallway outside of the gymnasium.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Students play basketball during the second and third grade noon recess at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Northampton. Delegates from the classes convened in November to draft a set of Recess Safety Rules.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Students play basketball during the second and third grade noon recess at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Northampton. Delegates from the classes convened in November to draft a set of Recess Safety Rules.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Students play basketball during the second and third grade noon recess at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Northampton. Delegates from the classes convened in November to draft a set of Recess Safety Rules.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Students play basketball during the second and third grade noon recess at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Northampton. Delegates from the classes convened in November to draft a set of Recess Safety Rules.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Anthony Gonzalez, left, and Jacob Renner, both students in Ann Desmond's current fourth grade class at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Northampton, view a mural produced for a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration several years ago by a previous fourth grade class of Desmond's. It is now displayed in a hallway outside of the gymnasium.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • This is a mural created several years ago by students in a former fourth grade class of Ann Desmond's at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Northampton for a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. It has recently been unrolled and mounted in the hallway outside of the gymnasium.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • This a detail of a mural created several years ago by students in a former fourth grade class of Ann Desmond's at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Northampton for a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. It has recently been unrolled and mounted in the hallway outside of the gymnasium.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Students play basketball during the second and third grade noon recess at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Northampton. Delegates from the classes convened in November to draft a set of Recess Safety Rules.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Students play basketball during the second and third grade noon recess at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Northampton. Delegates from the classes convened in November to draft a set of Recess Safety Rules.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

“They said they wanted to do something big — a big picture,” said Desmond, who teaches fourth grade at the city elementary school.

The blackboard-length painting her students created in January 2007 captured what they’d learned about the Nobel Peace Prize-winning civil rights leader, who was assassinated on a motel balcony in 1968.

It shows King delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech before a crowd made up of people of varying ages and races. One of his arms is raised as if in benediction. The backdrop is a sky painted an optimistic robin’s-egg blue.

While the painting was meant for display, it sat rolled up in a drawer until school librarian Alison Gleason discovered it late last year.

“It’s such a beautiful poster,” said Gleason, who remembers when it was first unveiled. “I thought we should hang it up.”

On their way to today’s all-school MLK assembly, Ryan Road students will pass by the mural, now displayed in a hallway outside the gym. As they did back in 2007, students in each grade will share songs, skits and other projects created for the assembly.

For Desmond, the mural is a reminder of how the school’s annual MLK celebration helps reinforce classroom lessons about civil rights and social justice.

“As students experience the assembly over a number of years, they understand more about who Dr. King was and what he did,” she said.

She said it’s often difficult for children born in the 21st century to imagine the racially segregated schools, lunch counters and water fountains that King and other movement leaders preached and protested against in the 1960s.

“They don’t get the idea of how different it was,” Desmond said. “When they hear about the things that happened, they can’t believe it.”

On the other hand, she said, many students understand that “skin color is still an issue.”

The MLK painting was the first time Desmond had attempted a classroom mural project. The image of King came from a photograph projected onto a screen, she said. While the faces in the crowd may look like they were done using real models, students drew them from their imaginations.

Chris Soderberg, one of the 17 fourth-graders who created the 2007 mural, can still recall painting the sky on it. Since then, he said, he has learned more about King and the movement he led. “I’ve learned more about how he changed things,” said Soderberg, a sophomore at Northampton High School. “It’s surprising how one single man could change an entire nation’s thinking about a subject.”

Fellow mural artist Ashley Major — also an NHS sophomore — remembers the annual MLK celebration at Ryan Road as “a way to get us all working together on something and teach us something about right and wrong.”

Related

Local groups recommit to civil rights movement lessons

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — Local religious institutions, a political action group and an area nonprofit have teamed up to organize events to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The events begin at 8 a.m. and run until after 9 p.m. Monday. “There’s something for everyone,” said Jeff Napolitano, director of the western Massachusetts office of the American Friends Service Committee, which has …

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