They sat on the floor in orderly rows, over 200 five and six year-olds waiting in anticipation, eyes glued in front of them. Anyone walking in would have assumed these kids were expecting an appearance from Cinderella or Thomas the Tank Engine.
But what commanded their attention was not a children’s hero of that magnitude, but their own hard work around another kind of hero, about to be unveiled for the first time.
What hung on the wall of the auditorium behind a cover of black plastic was a portrait of President Barack Obama, made out of 100 individual 10 by 10 inch squares. In celebration of African-American History Month, Tappan Hill art teacher, Andrea Harrison, took a photo of the President and cut it into 100 pieces, each an inch square.
Pairing the students up, she gave each a square and had them duplicate their image onto a blank 10 by 10 inch page of watercolor paper using oil pastels.
The hardest part was introducing the kids to the concept of "the middle." Since this was a mathematical concept generally not taught to kids of this age, Harrison improvised by creating “The Harrison Amazing Middle Finder.” She took pipe cleaners and cut them in half in front of the children. When the kids put the two pieces together, where they met was the middle, and from there they were able to figure out the correct perspectives with which to work. “Once they got going,” she says, “they were very good with the materials because children love to get dirty.”
Harrison explained that during the process, no student had been shown the complete picture. They had been given their square, maybe seen some squares their friends were working on, and that was it. “It was a lot of work to get them to understand that this [the finished portrait] was going to be something.”
So Monday morning, April 20th, at 10:45 am, the entire student body sat criss-cross applesauce in the auditorium as patient as five and six year-olds can be. Principal Michele Milliam did not focus on the other teachers, scattered parents, or a news team from Channel 12, but addressed the children directly. “When you look at this beautiful piece of art work, you are going to be so proud because you were able to make this very, very special product by working together, in the spirit of President Obama. Knowing that if you work together, cooperate, and work hard, you can do anything. Yes you can, right?”
The children responded with a huge cheer. Principal Milliam gave the word and the plastic was removed, revealing the portrait to everyone for the first time. The children were ecstatic, giving the picture and themselves an ovation that lasted for over 35 seconds. Their faces bore expressions of amazement, joy, and tremendous pride — a pride that was mirrored on the face of every teacher in the school as they watched their students’ reactions.
I asked Ms. Harrison where she got the inspiration to bring such a complex and ambitious project (she admits she had no idea if the end result was going to work) to Tappan Hill. What made her think 200 Kindergarten students could pull this off? And why Barack Obama? She says it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and something she had to do. “To tell [the children], you know, in such a short amount of time we go from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Barack Obama, and how exciting that is. And how, after the Inauguration, it was so exciting in here [at the school], to understand… to see the teachers who grew up where this was not even… this was a dream, it wasn’t possible. They understood the magnitude of what this meant.”