Ten years ago, I was the Lower School art teacher at Porter-Gaud School when our country was attacked on September 11, 2001. My first class period that day was free so I had stopped by our middle school history teacher’s classroom to ask him about that night’s football game. The teacher was reading the day’s announcements while the news was being shown on TV. I saw a plane crash into one of the Twin Towers and could not believe what I was watching—I thought that maybe there was a movie being shown. I brought the teacher’s attention to what I was seeing and everyone grew quiet. We quickly knew something unimaginable was happening in New York City.
I hurried back to my classroom and tried to call my husband. He was supposed to be in New York that day for a meeting in one of the Twin Towers, but the meeting had been changed at the last minute, and he was on his way to Philadelphia. When I finally heard from him, he told me that all of Philadelphia had been shut down, and people were told to go home. There was fear that Philadelphia would also be attacked.
Soon, it was time for my first class of the day to arrive. Some of the children had heard what happened, while some of the little ones had no idea. I tried to teach class as usual, but it was obvious then and in the days that followed, that our lives had been changed forever. The children were drawing pictures of planes crashing into the Twin Towers and of fires. I wanted to turn this tragedy into a positive learning experience by having the children concentrate on what was so amazing about our country. We decided to create a mural to send to the people of New York City, and started brainstorming about our beautiful America and how we could express our feelings through our drawings. We talked about our National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, patriotism, freedom, the bald eagle, and the American flag. We discussed how our country was coming together to help the people of New York and how everyone was showing their patriotism by flying the American flag. With all of this information the children started their drawings. The images were amazing. They drew pictures of firemen, policemen, other emergency workers, and even the rescue dogs. I knew from some of these drawings that they had seen the news. Pictures of children standing together saying the pledge of allegiance to the flag with their hands over their hearts were so wonderful. These images show the sense of unity our country experienced after 9/11 as seen by my students.
Working together, the students picked their favorite pictures to be transferred onto a large canvas. I enlarged their drawings onto the canvas and added hearts all along the border to finish the design. Once the drawing was complete, we were ready to paint. The children had a wonderful time working on the mural together and the final work shows the colorful, symbolic imagery they so beautifully created. Letters written by some of the fourth graders were added onto the hearts as a final touch. When the mural was complete and dry, I put grommets across the top so it could be easily hung. I mailed our tribute off to Mayor Giuliani’s office in New York City, and even though I did not know what happened to the mural, we felt good that we had sent our thoughts and prayers to the people of New York.
Several years later I was living in New York City when I received an email from Adina Langer at the 9/11 Memorial Museum wanting to know if I knew anything about a mural from Porter-Gaud School. Of course I said yes! Ms. Langer said that our mural had hung in Pier 94 where the victims’ families had come for help. After the center was closed, the mural was rolled up and placed in a closet. An electrician found the mural and gave it to the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Ms. Langer was happy to find out how our mural was created and has kept me posted on the progress of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
This past spring, I received another email about our mural. This time I learned that a book was being published about the artwork sent to New York after 9/11, which included our mural. The book is called “Art for Heart” and all of the proceeds will go to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. It is so wonderful that our gift of love, prayers, and support that we sent to lift the spirits of the people of New York is going to live on and be accessible to so many.
Today, my husband and I are back in Charleston, and I have also returned to Porter-Gaud School. The children who were the first and second graders ten years ago are now juniors and seniors. It is wonderful being back home!
—Laura Orvin, Administrative Assistant to the Head of School at Porter-Gaud and guest blogger
Editors Note: As we begin National Arts in Education Week, this story of how an art project was used to engage students in a discussion about real-world events is especially poignant. The Gibbes Museum works with Tri-County schools to provide in-school and on-site opportunities for students and teachers to make art and learn about the history of art through our collection. We are grateful to the teachers, museum educators and artists who share their expertise and talents with our youth.
A version of this story was reported in the Post & Courier on August 30, 2011.