Members of the National Art Honors Society recently worked on a mural just outside the Science Department in remembrance of Ms. Nicole Larsen following her passing.
The mural’s conception, development, and predicted impact represents an effort to memorialize teachers who have a positive impact on their students.
“She was one of those teachers that kids just wanted to be in her room because she was there. She was somebody who lifted people up. The students not only got a good education, but they had a safe place to go,” Science Department Chair Mr. Daniel Olandese said. “We were looking for a way to memorialize her presence in the building. She liked the idea of a tree of life.”
But this tree, and the hearts that decorate it, were already within the legacy of Ms. Larsen.
“The whole thing with the hearts goes back to before Ms. Larsen. I did an activity with my students after my friend had committed suicide, where I asked them to come up with people that they love and know and trust and know that they can go to for anything,” Ms. Milica Leone, a chemistry teacher at OHS, said.
Before Ms. Larsen’s passing, the tree was made of paper.
The hearts Leone referenced were meant to be put up on Unity Day, but when Larsen passed, they were put onto the cardboard tree immediately. BIONIC club felt it was important in such a tumultuous time to show students that there are people in their lives, whether it be teachers or family, that care about them.
But obviously, paper is temporary. It was important to make this a permanent memorial, and it was BIONIC that spearheaded its approval.
“I don’t believe that the mural would be being painted without Ms. [Wendy] Monn and Ms. [Colleen] Predl going and talking to Mr. [William] Nunamaker and trying to make it happen. It would still be the paper tree with the paper hearts,” Ms. Leone said.
One may expect the administration to be hesitant in putting up such a permanent fixture, but it was exactly the opposite. It was a no-questions-asked ordeal, and the mural was given swift and immediate approval.
The Science Department actually approached members of NAHS for the task.
“It was mostly the science department telling us the main idea of what they wanted and we just all combined ideas,” senior Jennifer Lopez, a co-director working on painting the mural, said.
In the meeting between the science teachers and NAHS, it was made clear that this mural was also for the student body, so it was important that students in NAHS were given creative reign over the mural.
“One of the ideas we had was putting an anatomical heart in the center of the tree,” sophomore Emily Rauch, an artist working on the mural, said.
This embodies not only a tree of life, which Ms. Larsen liked the idea of, but also the fact that she taught anatomy.
Time lapse video by Mack Hulke
The largest aspect of the mural, besides the tree itself, was also decided upon between the two groups.
“There was a quote that Ms. Larsen put on her whiteboard for parent teacher conferences. It said, ‘I promise you that every day your student will learn. Sometimes they’ll take it home in their head, sometimes they’ll take it home in their backpacks, sometimes they’ll take it home in their hearts,’ and [NAHS] is painting that [concept],” Ms. Leone said. “I think without the quote the mural would be meaningless. It sums up how all the teachers should feel about their students.”
The quote is to the left of the tree, and is a standout reminder of what a teacher should do beyond teaching, such as spreading positivity to her students.
“I hope it brings people together and reminds everyone that had or knew Ms. Larsen of the positive and good person that she was,” Lopez said.
Others hope the mural will remind students that people really do care about them, and there is always a teacher around that you can approach for anything.
As for what the day of completion itself will be like, the consensus is clear.
“I think everybody will have a moment. I think that Ms. Larsen’s passing was-and still is-extremely tragic,” Mr. Olandese said.
“When the paper tree was up and the hearts were on, I would come out of the math and science office and see teachers, custodians, and classroom aides standing, just staring at [the mural] because with all the hearts are up there, and all these people’s names up there, it’s overwhelming to know that there is still good out there,” Ms. Leone said.
She envisions the reaction to the mural being similar the reaction to the original paper tree.
Once the mural is finally finished and all the hearts are put up, OHS will be reminded of Larsen’s passing. Her memory will ensure every student that there are people who care about them—from teachers to close family. But only for a small portion of the mural’s life will there be students at OHS who remember Ms. Larsen. For the majority of its time at OHS, it will be viewed by students who didn’t hear Wayne’s dreadful announcement of Larsen’s passing.
“I hope students will look at it and know that we are here to do a job and that’s to teach you academics, but a teacher is more than somebody that teaches you academics. A teacher is somebody that helps you grow mentally and emotionally, so it doesn’t matter if they remember Nicole or not,” Ms. Leone said.
Leone doesn’t see not knowing Larsen personally as an obstacle to appreciating what the mural stands for, its message still gets across to everyone who views it. Mr. Olandese agrees.
“I hope it’s an example of how one person in one classroom can affect a building of 3,000,” Mr. Olandese said.
He also supported this statement by speaking about how Larsen was a very welcoming person when he arrived at OHS. Even though he was in charge of the Science department, Larsen served as a mentor in guiding him around OHS. Throughout her career, she created a welcoming environment not only in her classroom, but also throughout the school.
“Part of life is that you continue with your daily routine as best you can when you’ve lost a friend and a colleague, and for some teachers, a mentor,” Mr. Olandese said.