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.

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c.b. 2012

The Story Behind Solitary Confinement

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The votes have been cast in To Know or Not to Know and the win goes to full disclosure of the ailment afflicting the character and the inspiration behind Solitary Confinement. Thanks to everyone who took the time to read something a little different and vote in both polls regarding this piece.

To catch up or reread the short story discussed below, please visit this link:

Solitary Confinement

If you don’t want to know everything about what inspired this story, stop reading after this point!

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It’s often said that every piece of fiction has a grain of truth nestled somewhere deep within the story and characters.  In the case of Solitary Confinement, I took something I knew rather well and turned it into a metaphor that explores the strength of the human spirit when pushed to extremes.

For a number of years, I struggled with the pain of migraine headaches. It always bothers me when someone arbitrarily uses the word “migraine” to describe a really bad headache.  Migraines are an entirely different kind of pain that effects every part of the body.  In my case, the pain was debilitating and quite terrifying.  The descriptions of pain that I used in the story, (i.e. ants armed with lightening rods, the ice pick, the sledgehammer, a thousand baseball bats, muscle seizures, etc.) all came from my migraine journal that I kept for my doctor.  These descriptions gave me the starting point I needed to expand the emotional sense of what its like to experience overwhelming pain.

The emotional element of this story is based solely on the premise of feeling helpless.  This is where fiction comes in as a way to exaggerate the loss of control that comes from being unable to stop the pain.  I put the character on a hardwood floor to remove any possibility of comfort and to emphasize the paralysis created by the migraine.  It was important to establish this right from the start, especially for readers who have never experienced an affliction of this magnitude.

The scattered pills just out of reach are a mechanism to show desperation.  On a personal level, this has a lot of meaning to me because it reflects my own experience of never finding a magic fix to stop the migraines.  By putting them out of her reach, my intention was to create an illusion of help that doesn’t exist.

Hallucinations are one of the more frightening elements of severe migraines.  The more intense the pain, the more pronounced they become.  The references to shadows that aren’t there and voices whispering are also derived from my journal.  Extreme pain does funny things to your senses and messes with your perception of reality. To showcase the fear this creates, I opted to elevate this phenomenon by creating a less obvious hallucination that even the reader believes is real.

The main character makes several internal cries for a nameless man:

He said I could call . . .

I need him. I need help.

Her desperation for his presence escalates as the pain intensifies.  I purposely increased her internal dialogue to show her ever-increasing helplessness and give the impression that this man exists.  In truth, he is not real. The man she calls for represents a cry for help that can’t be heard. Physical pain may be paralyzing her, but she is also trapped by emotional turmoil and anxiety brought on by fear.  She is entirely alone in this situation, which creates a strong need for someone to help her.  In effect, she needs him to be real in order to cope with the pain.  This concept is furthered by the character’s belief that she’s done something wrong and the pain is her punishment.  His forgiveness would make the pain stop, but just like the pills he remains out of reach.

I never fully reveal this hallucination in the story because I want the reader to see him the way she does.  In this sense, the reader falls into the same view of reality that she experiences.

Overall, the character’s heightened level of pain is meant to reflect a state of helplessness when something is out of our control.  No matter how much we hope, need, or crave, there are moments when those things are irrelevant.  To that end, the only thing we have left is the ability to hold on with all our strength.

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Call it writer’s curiosity, but what was your interpretation of the story?

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c.b. 2012

Pondering Pissarro

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With the same fervor as Monet and Van Gogh, Camille Pissarro has captured my imagination with his unique style and perspective.  He is well known for making significant contributions to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism as he influenced the likes of Renoir, Cézanne, and Van Gogh. While his accomplishments are monumental, I find myself drawn to his work because of his emphasis on finding beauty in unexpected places.  His focus on simple subjects, rather than ornate is refreshing and asks the viewer to look beyond the obvious.

Self-Portrait (1903), Camille Pissarro

In the National Gallery of London, I was mesmerized by a Pissarro painting, (The Côte des Bœufs at L’Hermitage, 1877), not only due to its sheer beauty, but the epiphany it brought.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been drawn to Impressionist painters, but I never fully understood why they effected me so deeply.  Monet and Van Gogh always conjure an emotional bubble that often translates into inexplicable tears, while Renoir and Degas soothe the edges of my soul with their graceful images.

While sitting on a bench at the National Gallery and soaking in Pissarro’s brush strokes, I started to ask myself why Impressionism speaks to me with so much force. At first, I mused how Impressionist paintings seem to depict what the world looks like through the rain – my favorite kind of weather.  Whether it be a field of flowers through a water-streamed window or the streets of Paris caught in a downpour, the scene is blurred and refracted.  However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that was just a small part of the puzzle.  I strolled through the Impressionist wing of the museum, absorbing the likes of Monet, Renoir, and Seurat, until the answer slowly started to materialize.

These “blurry” paintings allow for imagination.  Mood and atmosphere are created by the artist, but the individual viewer gets to decide the story and the minute details.  Prior to Impressionism, the goal was to create as much realism as possible. The artist strived to portray everything with immaculate detail and gave the viewer little to do but look.  While amazing accomplishments, (and really quite beautiful) there is no room to wonder.  My creative spirit needs to play with the images I see and fill in the blanks.

Pissarro is often viewed as a father figure to Impressionism, so it seems fitting that one of  his paintings should lead to a new understanding of my admiration for the genre.  Below, I’ve put together a small slideshow that includes some of my favorite Pissarro paintings, including the painting that triggered my epiphany.

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Impressionists gave tradition a total make-over.  Free will became part of each painting with as much emphasis as color and subject matter.  The combination is intoxicating and explains why I lose myself so easily in the blurred edges of reality.

What kind of art speaks to you and why?

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All images courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

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c.b. 2012

Have You Ever Considered the Lobster?

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David Foster Wallace looks at the world with a unique perspective that combines curiosity with sarcasm and wit. In his collection of essays entitled Consider the Lobster, he explores everything from politics, grammar, and ethics with an incredibly sharp eye and an even sharper pen. All ten essays are phenomenal, but a few stand out because they literally make the pathways in my brain change direction.

Wallace is at his most hysterical in an essay entitled, “Authority and American Usage.” In this article, he decides to explore and debate the “dictionary wars.” Did you ever stop to wonder just who is the authority of the English language? Who decides how to properly use words and punctuation? The truth is, there is no official organization that sets the ground rules; there are just a bunch of “experts” that argue relentlessly through the reference books they write and publish. This sets the stage for Wallace to air his grievances with the system (or lack thereof). He delves into the question of what truly defines langauge and the “rules” attached to it. What follows is a fascinating foray into the sub-culture of SNOOTS (Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance or Syntax Nudniks of Our Time),  the fine art of writing, how languages change over time, and why the rules exist in the first place. Even though Wallace himself is a SNOOT, he is infinitely curious on why he is such a stickler to the rules. In an effort to answer this question he investigates how language works both with and without the rules and how culture, class, and academia influence and in some cases “control” the accepted language rules. Most interestingly, he explores why most people don’t care about grammar. While the topic of grammar is usually considered quite boring, this is where Wallace is at his best. His wit and humor makes the bland study of words and punctuation entertaining, especially when his temper gets the best of him. Wallace doesn’t like to be wrong!

“The View from Mrs. Thompsons” is a tender, realistic, and touching account of 9/11. While a wholly individual memoir of the event, the emotive sense of the piece exemplifies what it was like to be an American on that day. No matter who you are where you were, Wallace has your words. At the same time, he puts out a challenge to view that day in a new light — there is more than one America out there and Wallace wonders which one we all see.

In “Up, Simba” Wallace functions as a reporter for Rolling Stone as he tags along with the John McCain campaign of 2000. The focus is on McCain’s political ideas, but Wallace also takes the time to explain the more technical aspects of campaigning. In particular, how the camera and sound guys work and how different media personnel relate (or not) to one another. Wallace is a keen observer of the mundane, everyday facets that surround him, which is part of what makes him a unique writer. Even the boring can be interesting if viewed through a certain lens. Aside from the technical crew, he also finds himself drawn to McCain’s honesty. He wonders if that honesty is real or created. Thus begins an investigation of how marketing ties into campaigns and how that might be why Young Voters avoid the polls and why people don’t trust politicians. Voters these days know the game as they are inundated with ads and manipulated every day by every industry on the planet including Capitol Hill. Even if a politician tells the truth, most people are so jaded they can’t really be sure it’s the honest truth. Is there even a such thing as the total truth these days? Now there’s something to ponder.

Lastly, in the title essay “Consider the Lobster,” Wallace visits a lobster festival in Maine. Where most people would soak in the local flavor and bask in tourist traps, Wallace walks in thinking of the lobster. Not as a meal, but as a sentient entity. As he stands in front of the largest lobster cooker in the world, his mind begins to ponder a deeply moral and ethical question: Do lobsters feel pain when they are being boiled alive? It seems like a simple question, but it leads to other issues regarding food production and consumption. He posits that there is a disconnct between people and the animals they eat. We don’t like to think about the animal where meat comes from or whether the lobster getting thrown into a boiling vat of water can consciously feel pain. Have we lost our compassion or are we simply kings of the food chain? With this unique perspective, Wallace offers a thought provoking take on the old adage “You are what you eat.”

Wallace likes to hang out in left field in everything he writes.  He often sparks debate, but he always fuels the fire of independent thought and consideration.  The lobster never had a better advocate.

c.b. 2011