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Monroe Middle School takes unique angle to teaching tolerance

Charlotte artist Edwin Gil unveils a mural he created in the main hallway at Monroe Middle School. The mural is an artistic rendition of the face of a young man who was bullied to the point of attempting suicide. (Below) Professional ballroom dancers Luis Rivera, at right, and Dilandia Acevedo teach Latin ballroom dancing to Monroe Middle students, part of a diversity training at the school.

 Anti bullying messages and diversity education have taken on a unique angle at Monroe Middle School – the message is being brought through the arts.

The program, called Faces of Diversity, is made possible from a $5,000 grant from The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, called the Chancellor’s Challenge. It was written by UNC Assistant Professor Adriana Medina and Monroe Middle Assistant Principal Elkin Lenis.

“It’s a beautiful thing for our school,” said Lenis, the administrator for the school’s visual and performing arts learning community. “First it shows students the faces of diversity through art and dance.”

The grant funded an 8- by 8-foot mural created by Charlotte artist Edwin Gil. It was unveiled this week in the main hallway at MMS. The mural is an artistic rendition of the face of a young man who was bullied to the point of attempting suicide.

“The project promotes anti bullying by telling the story of one young man, who after attempting to take his own life, found that his love for art saved his life,” Lenis said.

Who better to understand the pain of attempting suicide than an artist who suffered the same agony? “I tried to kill myself twice,” Gil said. “Art saved my life. Through art, I found a reason to stay alive. Now maybe, we can save many more.”

Gil created the mural using "upcycled" glass from a Charlotte building. The mural also features fingerprints from all 940 Monroe Middle students using acrylic paint on a piece of glass. The school’s teachers and administrators placed their handprints on the glass.

These represent the staff and students dedicating themselves to taking a stand against bullying. The fingerprints and handprints were placed around the face of the student who is the focus of the mural.

“That kid lives today,” Gil said. “He tried to kill himself because he was being bullied in the school he attends in Charlotte. That piece of art will always talk to people about this young man and give the history of others just like him.”

This will be accomplished by people scanning a Quick Response (QR) code that is being placed beside the mural, thus allowing the individual to view videos telling the history of the mural and offering a close-up look at 10 other students who have been bullied in school to the point of attempting suicide.

“For me the most amazing thing while I was doing this work was when a student walked by and got choked up when he saw it and said, ‘It’s so beautiful!’ And it’s very interesting to hear the comments of students who walk past the mural between classes because the goal of this project is to touch the kids’ hearts. Maybe listening to some of these 10 stories will help them find options for the future, give them inspiration – hope for the future.”

Gil hopes to make 110 more art installations in schools throughout the country in order to bring attention to school bullying and suicide prevention.

The grant also brought professional ballroom dancers Luis Rivera and Dilandia Acevedo to teach Latin ballroom dancing.

“These three professionals show students that you can be from diverse backgrounds and still achieve,” Lenis said. Gil is from Colombia, while the dancers are from Honduras (Luis) and the Dominican Republic (Dilandia).

“I try to make my classes enjoyable, but at the same time I try to connect with the students,” Rivera said. “They need to be respectful of dance and have a goal.”

Rivera said that he has often found that students who are normally reluctant to participant in activities at school will find themselves enjoying dance class. “It can change the life of that person,” he said. “It takes passion and dedication to be a professional dancer. It can be a tough decision because if you want to make a career of dance, you have to sacrifice a lot in your personal life.”

So why does he dance? “You can connect with your soul through dance,” he said.

Students throughout the day lined up as Rivera taught various Latin dances and then demonstrated those dances with his partner, Dilandia Acevedo. Although a few stood on the sidelines momentarily, before the class was over, even the teachers and members of the local news media joined the fun.

As for the future for Gil, he said the Monroe Middle mural is the first of 111 that he hopes to create nationwide. Why 111? It’s his lucky number. He hopes to create a mural similar to the one at Monroe Middle School in every state in the America.

Written by: Deb Coates Bledsoe, UCPS Communications Coordinator
Posted: Dec 19, 2012 by Deb Coates Bledsoe

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