When I moved to Los Altos, and inquired with neighborhood families about the local middle school, the responses were oddly consistent: “Oh, it’s awesome.” Whether I was asking the child or the parent, the response was invariably positive.
For me, it was difficult to reconcile that “awesome” was even possible for a middle school experience. When Lucas started at Egan this year I couldn’t wait to meet Brenda, see the school in action, and find out how it could so consistently meet the needs of such a diverse group of teenagers.
Lucas had a great first year. He loves school. However, after 23 years, the principal, Brenda Dykman announced she was ready to retire. The PTA reached out to me with the idea of creating a mural on campus that would honor her legacy.
In our first mural planning meeting, Brenda shared with me the core of what is special about Egan. She empahsized how critical this age was in human development, and how misunderstood her brilliant, funny and precious students were outside of the cocoon of support that thrives at Egan. What was missing from my pages of notes was any mention of the amazing academic performance records of the students. Her focus is on understanding this age, and how to strategically support each child right where they are at, with all of their “age appropriate” behavior. I suspect this is her excuse as to why Egan needs to be as much fun as summer camp: almost every week there is some sort of schoolwide reason to have fun, whether it is a dance, or a pancake breakfast in pajamas, or a softball throw in PE where the teachers are in the dunk tank seat. Brenda emphasized how Egan is a family, and that the safe, supportive environment they create is possible because of the support and shared vision among the staff. She talked about how Egan is like a family, and how kids in college come back and tell her their time at Egan was the highlight of their school career. Clearly, Egan is a special place, but it seemed a daunting task to compress pages of notes from 23 years of experience into a single compelling work of art. If wondered if it was even possible to create something that will resonate with both the students and the “grown ups”: the district, the parents, and the retiring principal?
I returned a week later and presented Brenda with five unique potential designs. Here are the ideas I presented:
Brenda selected the fifth concept because she felt it reflected the explosion of emotion in the early teen years. “It illustrates the volcanic energy that expresses the vitality of that age.” I took notes on her feedback, to make sure I captured what she hoped to see in the art. It spoke volumes of her approach as a principal that she chose a design based on what the students would resonate with first and foremost. I don’t think it crossed her mind to worry whether or not the district would approve, or what the parents would think.
I thought she would pick the sedate Viking ship on the lake, so I was both surprised and thrilled with my assignment…
My first day on the job I put out an oversized pad of newsprint and challenged the students to write down words or doodles that characterized their experience at Egan. They jumped right in to the challenge and the mural was transformed from their suggestions. It was immediately apparent they took a lot of pride in their diversity: Flags! Lots of country flags! Friends. Music. Ice cream. Disneyland. Soy guapo. Someone wrote down, “A seventh grader for a year, and eighth grader for a year, a Viking for a lifetime.” I incorporated their suggestions into the mural on the fly.
In learning about the school traditions, and also from seeing the campus in action, I realized why the kids love it: it’s fun. One Egan tradition works like a game show: volunteers are randomly selected and seated in a row on stage, each with a “mystery bucket” poised over their head. A snippet of a Disney song is played, and if they cannot finish the lyric, the content of the “mystery bucket” is dumped on their head. Brenda, who dresses for the occasion in a pink sparkly princess dress, gets dumped on every year. This is a woman who takes her job seriously! Think Nickelodeon green slime dump except a little more….organic: flour, chocolate sauce, orange juice, etc. The beloved mystery bucket tradition found it’s way into the mural.
My son helped me make the Viking helmet and provided a critique of the mural progress each evening. He doesn’t enjoy making art himself (yet), but he has a keen eye and I trust him for critical feedback on all my projects. After one of the evening reviews, I protested, “But Lucas, people are liking it! They say it is good! Making these changes is a lot of work!” He looks at me, dead serious, “But Mom, you and I both know that you can do better.” I made the changes.
A few comments overheard from the kids:
“That looks dope.”
“Wow. Awesome. That’s incredible. Can I have a ride on your lift?”
“Will you put my name in the mural?
“How fast does that thing go?”
“Dude, I actually really like it.”
“Okay, honey buckets, get to class!” (overheard on the P.A.)
Brenda, thank you for your contributions to our community for the past 23 years. Enjoy your retirement, but know that you will be deeply missed!
I leave for a three week vacation Thursday with my family in Sri Lanka. Then I am headed to Portland, Oregon to paint a mural on the front of the World Forestry Center. I can hardly wait for all the fun coming my way.
I hope you enjoy your summer! Let the good times roll….