Students Weave Stories into Murals

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday November 06, 2007

From the outside, Portable 9 looks like any other classroom at Berkeley High. But inside, a mix of sights, sounds and colors hurtles the visitor into a world of oil, paper and fabric.  

Local muralist Sara Bruckmeier enlisted the students from this classroom to help create two three-dimensional murals as part of the National Endowment of Arts’ “Big Read” project being celebrated in libraries across the nation this fall. 

Portable 9 is the home of Berkeley High’s Life Academy, started by Berkeley High Principal Jim Slemp in 2005 as a program which helps 20 ninth-graders who need extra help to adjust to high school through an interdisciplinary project-based curriculum. 

“The idea was that it would be an open storybook,” said Bruckmeier, who directs the HereStories project at Epic Arts, which produces local public art projects. “The kids have stuff they want to talk about and stuff they don’t want to talk about and we had to respect that ... At first we thought they would just come in and spill their guts, but at this age they want to keep their privacy.” 

On Thursday, the work and stories of these student artists will be mounted on the recently renovated walls of the West Berkeley Library Branch. Under every page on the murals is a hidden one, revealing only as much as its creator wants us to see.  

The academy students spend their freshman year in the portable classroom on the east side of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and then move across the street to the main campus for sophomore year. 

“The idea was to take students who get flagged out of junior high as kids who might struggle in a traditional academic setting and offer them support both academically and personally,” said Hasmig Minassian, Life Academy teacher. “Our small class sizes and structured coursework prepare them for tenth grade at Berkeley High.” 

She said middle schools refer students to the program who show potential but have not been successful in school.  

“We often get students who face academic and behavioral challenges,” Minassian said. “They may have trouble interacting with teachers, be below grade level or just defiant. We teach them skills they wouldn’t otherwise get ... try to get them involved in community and find a purpose.” 

Some Life Academy students said the location of the program helped them focus on their assignments, but others said they longed to be across the street with the other students. 

“I like it here, It’s quieter and helps me concentrate,” said Alanah Davis, 15, who painted a boombox on the mural to express her love for music. “I got sent out of class everyday at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School ... I was disruptive. The other students got to me and distracted me. But when I came here I started paying more attention.” 

Next to the Alanah’s boombox on the mural is a hand-stenciled charcoal-gray sketch painstakingly crafted by freshman Salman Khan. 

Salman, who got suspended from Longfellow Middle School for tagging, said that he wanted to become a graffiti legend when he grew up. “I draw names and faces on train tracks, factory walls and trucks,” he said, showing off black, silver and gold spray cans which travel with him in his bag all day. 

Salman’s friend Michael Joyce tagged the word “kid” in bold red letters on the mural. 

“People keep telling me to stop acting like a kid,” he said. “But I don’t want to. I think graffiti is a problem because people think it is a problem... If you make it legal, I bet you no one will do it.” 

Salman and Michael said they appreciate the classes at Life Academy but hate the portables. 

“It sucks,” said Salman. “I want to be in the main campus with my brother. They have way too much fun there.” 

Bruckmeier’s library mural project, enlisting the talents of the Life Academy students, has been a boon for many of the teenagers, said Matt Kraft, a Life Academy teacher. 

“A lot of our students have valuable insights and art gives them the ability to speak about themselves,” he said. “Helping them engage their artistic intellectuality is one of the many ways to try to build on their intellectuality ... It exposes them to a world they haven’t been exposed to.” 

Bruckmeier said the students have done a beautiful job of weaving their stories into the project. 

“When I look at the murals, I see the chaos and struggle that takes place when you are searching for identity,” she said. “Then I see the beautiful calmness. It’s important to remember that this group responds more to images than to words ... and that all they want is the freedom to express themselves.” 



Artists Reception open to the public at the West Berkeley branch on Nov. 8 from 2:30 p.m.-4 p.m.