Anyone can paint a wall white.
But what happens when you take those white walls and paint vibrant colours and motivational words onto them?
At Digby Regional High School they’ll tell you it opens up a new world for students and staff.
You can barely walk down any hallway of the school and not see a mural somewhere. The intent is to turn the school into a more positive environment. And it’s working, says principal Darrell Richardson.
“We started walking around the building with the idea, how can we make the place a little brighter and get rid of some of the white walls?” he says.
Enter Tiffany Barrett and a collaborative, team effort all the way around.
If Barrett’s name sounds familiar, it’s because last year a photograph she took of a motivational mural she painted on a wall at Digby Elementary went viral. Within days the post of the motivational quote – credited to Bryan Skavnak – had been shared more than 280,000 times.
There’s almost a viral atmosphere within the walls of the Digby school these days too. This is because the positivity from the murals – there are around two dozen of them so far – continues to spread throughout the school that houses around 425 students from grades 7 to 12
“I’ve heard nothing but positive. Students are excited, staff seem more positive. Everybody is excited to see all these sayings and visuals around the building. I think everyone has a little more pep in their step now walking around and seeing these,” says Richardson.
He notes a school is not just a building, it’s a space that belongs to students.
“We’ve started the process of making it more inclusive,” the principal says. “We just want to make them feel more at home and more comfortable.”
Erin Todd, a youth health promoter at the school, says there is a lot of research pertaining to physical spaces. When you’re spending about six hours a day inside a building, it’s good to know students are getting a message that goes beyond white blank walls.
“You do a value walk and you talk about, what is valued in this space? Student voices. Learning opportunities. Health and wellness. What does the building say when we walk in? Does it feel institutional or does it feel like a space that says, ‘Hey, I belong here. Somebody cares about me. Somebody believes in me,’” she says.
The school is hoping it screams the latter.
Barrett is beyond pleased to be a part of this. She says as she’s been painting murals on the walls of the school it’s been great to get feedback from students and staff and to see them engaged in the messages they’re reading.
She started painting murals at Digby Elementary in 2014. First she painted a diversity mural. Then it was one of the doors in the school. That first door led to another, and another and another until every single door in the school was painted.
That’s Barrett’s thing. Once she starts something, she can’t stop.
“I enjoy it, it’s a passion,” she says. “I just love seeing the kids happy.”
She says it’s been great to be painting the murals at the high school during the school day because students get to see the transformation in the halls as it is taking place.
“I think they respect it and appreciate it so much more because of that,” she says.
And Barrett was always open to ideas. When the school’s resource program said they’d like a window painted in the room, she delivered. When it was suggested there should be some French quotations, she did that too.
“I think the message, whether it’s a window or a quote, is following through and telling staff and students that we care about you, we respect your ideas, we want this to be a place where you feel welcomed and connected when you’re here. And it's happened,” says Todd, who also notes that Amy Theriault, the Schools Plus Facilitator, also helped to play a role in this initiative.
The school’s principal hopes everyone feels an even greater sense of belonging inside these painted walls.
“This is a super diverse place and you can’t just put a few things on that only connect to a certain group. As long as you connect everybody together and they feel represented by some work in the building, then it absolutely is valuable,” he says. “If anybody at any point in time feel slightly left out then we will certainly have to find a way to represent them.
“It’s far from a bad thing to put a bit of paint on a wall to brighten someone’s day,” he adds. “It’s not hard to do.”
Some of the messages around the school
Some kids are smarter than you.
Some kids have cooler clothes than you.
Some kids are better at sports than you.
It doesn’t matter. You have your things too. Be the kid who can get along.
Be the kids who is generous.
Be the kid who is happy for others.
Be the kid who does the right thing.
Be the nice kid.
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use the change the world.
We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value, no matter what their colour.
What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of a difference you want to make.
The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination.