One of the most moving experiences of my life occurred in Prague, when I stood before the Lennon Wall. To the casual observer its just a wall covered in graffiti, but those who take time to look a little harder will find the wall means so much more in terms of history and the power of the human spirit.
The Lennon Wall started as a portal for protest during the 1980s when young Czechs used the wall to air their grievances against the communist regime, (though there are instances of earlier grafitti in the 1970s). They would write out their desire for basic human rights, peace, and love in the form of artwork, poetry, and slogans. The movement became collectively known as Lennonism as people often cited Beatles lyrics and used the wall as a memorial to John Lennon in response to his assassination, but also to keep his ideals of peace alive.
The communist regime continuously painted over the voices of protest. Freedom of speech was essentially non-existent in Czechoslovakia throughout the communist era and exercising that right could lead to dire consequences. Yet, the people still went to the wall with paint and markers. No matter how many times the government whitewashed the canvas, the graffiti would return the next day – bolder and louder.
By the end of 1989, the communist regime ended, which gave way to the Velvet Revolution. The people who so bravely voiced their opinions had gained their freedom and continue to reinvent the Czech Republic and Slovakia into vibrantly thriving countries.
Even though the goal of freedom was met, the Lennon Wall continues to stand as a monument for the ideals of peace and love. Though most importantly, it is a reminder of how powerful the human voice can be. More than 20 years has passed, but people from all over the world still visit the Lennon Wall to leave their mark by doing something as simple as signing their name or creating an amazing work of art, (the wall is currently owned by the Knights of Malta, who allow the grafitti to continue). Layer upon layer of paint brings together thousands of voices and makes the wall an incredible symbol of hope.
Signing the wall was an emotional experience in that the moment my pen hit the wall, I was instantly connected to every single person who had ever left a message. From the individual who risked everything for free speech decades ago to the kid who spray painted his name the day before, we’ve all come together for the same reason: To stand up and be heard.
The experience of the Lennon was so powerful, it inspired me to re-create the wall in my classroom. As it is, my walls are a visual experience covering every facet of World History imaginable, so something as colorful as the Lennon Wall would fit right in. In addition, I teach young adults, which is a group that often feels silenced from the pressures of growing up and fitting in. Creating a Lennon Wall seemed like the perfect opportunity to teach them a lesson they’d never forget.
Towards the end of the school year, the curriculum includes the Revolutions of 1989. Instead of relying only on the textbook to tell the story of protests sweeping across Eastern Europe, I give my students the opportunity to share the experience of the Czechs. After learning the history and purpose of the Lennon Wall, each student creates a piece using a full or half sheet of paper. They’re job is to cover it with a message they want to share with the world and then color it from end to end. As the pieces roll in, I put them up on the wall so they interlock, creating a solid wall of color that gives the illusion of graffiti as it appears on the real wall.
This becomes a lesson not only in history, but a lesson that shows students how to recognize their voice and use it for something positive. In a world where negativity is everywhere (such as bullying in high school hallways), my Lennon Wall is a powerful symbol of individual expression that doesn’t hurt. This is a place where my students can leave their mark and feel empowered as individuals. For many of my students, this is their first opportunity to truly be heard. I can’t even begin to say how significant that is for a young adult.
Over the last four years, the tradition of my Lennon Wall has grown at a phenomenal rate. Its the first thing new students notice when they walk into my room and their anticipation to be part of it heightens throughout the year. Each year the wall changes as new pieces are created, (old pieces are taken down and stored). The change is slow and organic, making it a realistic representation of the actual Lennon Wall. As the wall morphs, faculty, administration, and even students who are not in my classes stop by to see the wall. It’s amazing how a wall full of colorful voices can instantly create an atmosphere of community. I noticed it from the start and the feeling continues to get stronger.
This year’s incarnate of the wall has the distinction of being the largest display ever created. Over 150 pieces of student created artwork came together in the spirit of the Lennon Wall. (To see these images full-size, please click on each one.)
Despite the success of the wall, it is not immune to the establishment. Two days before the last day of school, I received an e-mail explaining that the interior of the school was going to get repainted over the summer and I was instructed to strip all the walls in my classroom. Of course, I got this news an hour after putting up the last piece of this year’s Lennon Wall. My heart broke as I looked at the wall my students and I worked so hard to create. It barely had a chance to breathe in its newly transformed state and now “they” were telling me to tear it down. In many ways it felt like they were asking me to silence the voices of my students. A sting like that runs pretty deep and I couldn’t hold back the tears.
It would have been easy to stay angry, but I realized very quickly that I had to respond in a way that reflected the deeper meaning of the Lennon Wall. If not for myself, but for my students. One by one I took the pieces down and filed them according to location in the hopes that I can reconstruct the wall as closely as possible once the painting is done. I’ll never be able to piece it together perfectly, but I can try to maintain the overall aesthetic of this year’s wall.
Once the pieces were down, I invited my colleagues to join me in a little rebellion. In the spirit of the real Lennon Wall, we grabbed permanent markers and literally signed the wall of my classroom. Everything will be painted over, but our voices will forever be part of the wall – just like those voices in Prague who had the courage to say something thirty years ago. In doing this, my Lennon Wall now has an unbreakable tie to the real thing making it far more meaningful and powerful than I ever imagined.
As the Lennon Wall teaches both my students and myself, silence is not an option when there is something worth standing up for.
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