The crazed response by some people in Virginia to a classroom assignment on Islamic calligraphy reminded me of an experience I had in the period right after 9/11.
It started when the P.E. teachers received a grant to install a climbing wall in the gym. They asked me if I could get some of my students together and paint a mural where the climbing wall was going to be installed.
“No problem,” I said. I sketched out a simple design of clouds and stars and with a few buckets of house paint and some student council volunteers, we finished the job in a couple of afternoons.
“Why not an airplane?” came the inevitable suggestion – after we were done.
“No problem,” I said. I sketched an airplane and the students painted it silver. It all looked pretty good.
Not so quick.
Some of the parents who did lunch room supervision decided that the airplane would remind students of 9/11 and terrorism and was inappropriate since the gym also served as the lunch room.
I drew a line in the sand with the principal. It was an airplane! If I was forced to paint over the plane, I would paint over the entire mural. The fears of these few parents were irrational.
I saw this as an opportunity. It was also clear to me that we needed to expand my students’ knowledge if Islam.
And expand my own.
I came up with an activity in which the fourth grade students would investigate Islamic tile design and architecture.
Islamic religious buildings, unlike Christian churches, don’t recreate images of people. They use calligraphic imagery and all-over designs.
Some folded paper, a little practice in the use of a protractor and some colored pencils and the students were into design-making based on Islamic tile designs.
To be clear, I always explained to my students that I am no expert on things such as this. We are learning it together. We were looking at some of the formal qualities of the work. A culture is much too complex to fully understand in the course of one art project.
If it sparked some interest for further understanding, that would be good.
I mounted the finished designs on the cork strip all the way down the hall between the Art room and the front office. I put up a big label: Islamic Tile Designs.
It became part of my rotation of art projects for a decade.
And nobody said a word.