Reconstructing the Lennon Wall

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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 is located at Velkopřevorské náměstí (Grand Priory Square) in the section of Prague known as Old Town. Photo by: c.b.w.

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.

I signed the wall just below the left “prong” of the peace sign. As a lefty that spot has special meaning to me. How I signed the wall will be my secret.

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 wall is full of many voices – some positive and some not – but the spirit of having a voice is what makes this such a powerful monument.

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.)

The center section of the 2012 Lennon Wall in my classroom.

The left section of the 2012 Lennon Wall in my classroom.

The right section of the 2012 Lennon Wall in my classroom.

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.

I signed my wall by tracing my hand and inscribing it with multiple messages, including a quote from a Czech writer who was banned during the Communist regime.

As the Lennon Wall teaches both my students and myself, silence is not an option when there is something worth standing up for.

– – –

c.b. 2012

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67 thoughts on “Reconstructing the Lennon Wall

  1. What a wonderful idea to share with your students! As sad as it must have been to take down the wall after just putting it all together, once it is reassembled at the start of the new school year, you will feel as though your voices can now have a new place to be heard. 🙂

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    • My students told me the same thing – they were sad, but they told me it’ll be even better next year. I believe them! 🙂 Plus, I think it’ll be even more powerful with the marker signatures underneath. I took pictures of all of them, so I can post them with the new wall. 🙂

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  2. I’d never heard of the Lennon Wall and find it Amazing that a Beatle could have that impact on the world. It would be so amazing to see something like that. And your wall, I’m sorry you had to take it down but you dealt with it beautifully and added so much more symbolism. The layers of time and the layers of ideals. My thoughts are racing.

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  3. Just beautiful. Every time I come to your blog, I learn something. And also end up being inspired. I love that you created this wall for your students. As the mother of a teenager, I can only imagine how much something like that would mean to young people. Awesome!

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    • Thanks! 🙂

      The wall is my favorite thing to share with parents during open house. I think it gives them some comfort that their child is in a safe and positive place (and I’m sure it does the same thing for my students!).

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  4. What an uplifting post! Sometimes I think there’s some hope for the human race, even though I just doubted it [coming from a post about cruelty to animals]. Didn’t know about the Lennon Wall, so that was really interesting reading!

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    • I’m glad its rekindled your faith in humanity (sometimes hope is hard to come by). The wall is a great reminder that we are capable of really wonderful things – we just have to make the decision to take that path. 🙂

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  5. From beginning to end, this is one of the most moving “stories” I’ve read in a long time. Heart warming through and through. What an awesome teacher you are. I feel honoured that you share bits and pieces of your life here with us.

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    • Awww, you are too kind. 🙂

      This post meant a lot to me and I love hearing that it is resonating with people in such a positive way. A lot of my colleagues didn’t understand what the wall meant to me and this was my way of explaining the significance of having to tear it down (and why I was so upset at having to take it down). If anything, the Lennon Wall has become a brilliant lesson in how something bad can be turned into something positive – its all in how we choose to react.

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  6. Leila

    In college we had our own version. Ever semester, we’d cover the apartment hallway with butcher paper. Everyone, residents or visitors, were welcome to leave a thought, quote or image. Then at the end of the semester we’d role it up and start again with the next semester. I loved it and have wonderful memories of the experience.

    I love the fact that you and your colleagues signed the wall before it got painted. I think I need to restart my wall tradition. 🙂

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  7. I often visit the John Lennon Memorial Garden. It’s way up in the north of Scotland in the village of Durness, where John used to spend his holidays. Nothing much grows up there, so the garden is mainly a collection of sculptures amongst sparse plants. I love it, though.

    M

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  8. settleandchase

    How fantastic! Both walls so moving..what a great idea to pass it on to your students, just wonderful..I absolutely love the idea of your hidden message lying underneath the paint too..great post!

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    • Thanks! Both walls mean a lot to me, but I didn’t realize how deep it ran until I was told to take down all those pieces. Putting those messages under a layer of paint makes it all so much more meaningful – I can’t wait to tell my students about it in the fall. 🙂

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  9. This is beautiful and profound. I had no idea about the Lennon Wall, thank you for bringing it to my awareness. It’s so easy to take our lives for granted when so many people out there would do anything to live one of our “worst days” in exchange for their reality. Thank you for putting my life back into perspective and helping me appreciate what truly matters.

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    • The wall in my classroom reminds me of the same things you mention. Whenever I’m having a bad day at work, I just look at the Lennon Wall we’ve created. It puts everything in perspective!

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  10. An incredibly moving post, C.B. Thanks for writing it, and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. As an “anti-establishment” person myself (more in regards to my previous employment), I stand up and applaud what you teach young adults. A huge, resounding Y-E-S for everything you put down on this digital platform. May we all be inspired with bravery and the sense of rightness, peace, acceptance, and harmony for all in support of the Czechs and every other human being who is oppressed or has yet to find their bravery to stand up for themselves, or something bigger.

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    • This piece meant a lot to me as both a writer and a teacher. I’ve never fully expressed what the wall meant to me and why I believe in it so much. While the “incident” at the end of the school year was devastating, it did give me the impetus to explain the whole concept of the wall. Everything really does happen for a reason!

      May we all be inspired by the Lennon Wall for it reminds us of our strength. The legacy of the wall has never been more powerful! 🙂

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  11. It’s taken me a while to gather my thoughts to comment on this post. I still am not sure which part impacts me the most, the ” back story” of the surprise of the Lennon Wall in Prague, and all it meant and means to those who risked and lost their lives for freedom, or the bringing it forward to your classroom, and all that you gave your students by creating your own Lennon Wall. And then, to see the beautiful expressions of your students’ hearts and souls, to hear their hopes for love and peace and justice that they infused in their artwork, brings tears to my eyes.
    One thing jumps out at me from my prior life as a working person. Research on resiliency in children repeatedly finds that the presence of one caring adult who listens to and cares about and believes in the child is the strongest predictor of a successful outcome for children impacted by the obstacles created by poverty, parenting, and other societal ills. Your impact on the children in your classroom is beyond measure. In the most tangible way possible, you are telling them that their hopes and fears and dreams and wishes are important, and that you are listening and that you care.
    I hope that the photos will help you reconstruct your Lennon Wall. Your school administration has as much of a chance of silencing you and your students as the Communist regime ultimately had in the Czech Republic. As the Czech people prooved, paint will not cover up the voice of the people or the longings spoken from the heart.

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    • Your comment brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for believing in what I do. 🙂 Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing the right thing and support like this gives me the strength to keep listening and caring for my students.

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  12. I am so moved and inspired by your two posts on this Wall and its influence. I’ve hung ten feet of butcher paper on a blank wall in my house with a box of crayons near by to write when the spirit moves me. It will be interesting to see where that leads. Thanks!

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  13. CB—this is incredibly powerful, and so is today’s follow-up. I absolutely LOVE this concept. Boy do I wish I worked at your school so I could see the transformative power of this activity on the faces and in the hearts of your students. Would it be ok if I put this on FB and also if I reblog it?

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    • Absolutely. Please share this so it can inspire as many people as possible! 🙂

      I may have to post an update showing how the wall looks now. All the pieces have been hung, but I chose to put them up in a totally organic way instead of reconstructing it exactly as it was before, (I’m going to hang up photographs of the previous set-up so it can be part of the story). It turned out amazing!

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  14. Renee (fancynewsammy ;-) )

    Hi, C.B.! I clicked through to this from today’s entry (Aug 6). Such a range of personality and expression on that wall. I can’t imagine what it might have meant if I’d been encouraged that way as a teen. Good job.

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    • Thanks! 🙂 Students are coming back on Wednesday and I know my former students responsible for these pieces will be coming to see the wall. I can’t wait to show them how its changed and tell them the story of the mark!

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  15. I have had the pleasure of knowing many such “walls” although I am sure the people involved had no more idea than most of the Lennon version of it. Consider the huge rock in western U.S. that still carries signatures of pioneers carved into it, or the rune rock in our north. I often wonder, too, about the cave paintings in Spain . . .

    I once stayed in a B&B that had been converted from an old country schoolhouse (US) and the one remaining real slate balckboard was the the “honeymoon suite”. Colored chalk was provided. It was solid with initials inside hearts and many mooshy (and even some adult-only) sentiments, a total departure from what your wall means, but yet, not so far away from it, I think.

    However, you must see the latest lovely protest, one that will last as long as the :wall”, itself:

    http://thefaeryinn.wordpress.com/2012/08/09/update-on-my-dad-and-my-tattoo/

    Bring tissues. You will not be disappointed.

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  16. CB—I revisit this post about weekly. Each time it moves me. Each time I want to see the wall in your classroom. I want to talk to the students who have been LUCKY enough to have you as their teacher. They are your opus, they are your master work. Please post the new wall and tell us more…..I wish EVERYONE could see this post, read what your students put on the wall, read your personal stamp of “I will not be silenced”. Personally, I think the AZ Republic would be wise to put it on the front page (or the front page of the local section) to remind people of how important it is to express their voice….sigh…I am sorry to gush. I just love this post.

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    • Your comment totally made my day! I will start putting together a post showcasing the new wall for next week. Its continuing story is incredible and I can’t wait to share it. 🙂

      Thanks so much for loving the wall as much my students and I do. 🙂

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