Classes Come and Go, but the Mural Grows and GrowsBy FERNANDA SANTOS
It began in the fall of 2006 with a palm-size magnet, the kind you might find holding a calendar to a refrigerator door. The magnet pictured a Norman Rockwell illustration of “Rosie the Riveter” sitting on a stool, her gaze trained over her right shoulder, a sandwich in her left hand.
Thomas J. Buxton, an English teacher at the school, William McKinley Intermediate School 259 in Dyker Heights, had received the magnet as a gift from a student and brought it to class one day, along with a book depicting the paintings by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He zeroed in on a picture of Isaiah the prophet and the students immediately noted the similarities: his eyes turned in the same direction as Rosie’s, their posture and expression essentially identical.
Something clicked, Mr. Buxton would say years later, and all of a sudden his students found pleasurable meaning in the day’s lecture on the many ways art seeps into popular culture.
“I think I’ve got a hook here,” Mr. Buxton, 63, recalled realizing at the time. He teamed up with the school’s art teacher, Roma Karas, to get the students to paint what they learn in class.
The mural started on the third floor of the school, between the two doors that lead to the library, with paintings from New York City in the 1930s to go with a lesson on the Great Depression.
It was never meant to be more than a year’s project, but something Mr. Buxton said he noticed in the students who had been working on it made him extend it for another year, and then another, and then another, and then another.
Shy students became more outgoing and rowdy students became more introspective, he said. Students who had never before visited a museum or browsed through an art book found themselves painting the Art Deco borders that frame many of the pictures or gluing mosaic tiles together above a water fountain to form an image of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.
In a school of roughly 1,400 students, most of whom come from poor or immigrant homes, the mural “ushered the kids into a world they never knew existed,” said Mr. Buxton, who has been a teacher for 39 years.
“It’s like they can’t get enough of it,” he said.
Maham Abbas, 13, who is in seventh grade, arrives at the school before classes start every morning to work on the mural. Caroline Johnston, 13, who is in eighth grade, comes by on Saturday mornings, joining former students of Mr. Buxton’s who volunteer their time on weekends to help the students paint. Victor Rivera, 14, also an eighth grader, stays after class to cut into shape the plywood boards where the paintings are made and drill them into the walls.
After her parents moved to Staten Island, Jenny Ramirez, 14, who is in eighth grade, refused to leave the school because of the mural. Rime Nakhlawi, 13, who is in seventh grade, said as she sauntered out of Mr. Buxton’s class one recent afternoon, “It feels like we’re in a museum!”
The school covers the cost of the mural, which includes overtime pay for certain teachers; one of them must come in early or stay late to monitor and guide the students at work.
“I could buy more books, more computers, but the money is better spent this way,” said the principal, Janice Geary. “Our kids aren’t exposed to a lot of the things privileged kids are. We’re giving them an experience they would never have had.”
Mr. Buxton’s classroom looks like a construction zone. There’s a drill on his table, a jigsaw in a cabinet out back, a level on the floor and sketches on the walls. Students are assigned to work in the mural in seventh grade, and the decade of the 1930s has been a recurring element of the paintings every year, an unspoken homage to the decade the school was built.
For Year 2, the theme was the influences of Greek mythology in 1930s architecture; the naked Hermes that figures on a relief sculpture at Rockefeller Center appears in the mural on the passenger seat of a 1930 Chrysler 70 roadster, wearing a cape.
The mural is now on its fifth year, its paintings connecting the Italian Renaissance to the Harlem Renaissance.
It has more than 600 poems and essays from the students. It has used 1,300 feet of plywood and countless tubes of acrylic paint. The smallest of the paintings is 5½ feet high; the tallest rises 16 feet on the stairwell leading to the gym. To make it, the students took a Thomas Hart Benton’s painting called “July Hay” and transformed it based on the words of Robert Frost’s “Road Not Taken.” The result was a man on a hay field, his back to the spectator, contemplating a fork in a road.
Mr. Buxton is already making plans to continue the mural in the school year that begins in the fall. He wants to do a 100-foot painting honoring the first responders who died on Sept. 11, 2001, retaining the connection that the project has always had to works of art and literature.
Every Tuesday, education beat reporters for The New York Times take you inside the New York City schools, public and private. Have a tip? Send it to IntheSchools@nytimes.com.