It's been 37 years since my last day of kindergarten, but I still remember my teacher, Mrs. French, inviting us to her house for an end-of-the-year party where she let each of us write our names (in permanent marker!) on her wall.
I recall feeling a heady mix of adult-sanctioned malfeasance, artistic license and, maybe best of all, the knowledge that my beloved teacher would forever have a little reminder of me in her home.
I thought of Mrs. French recently when I stopped by Jose De Diego Community Academy on the Northwest Side. I profiled the school's wonderful art therapist, Ruth Evermann, last June, and she emailed me recently to invite me back for a visit.
A group of De Diego eighth-graders spent the last eight months creating a mural of endangered animal paintings that now line the walls outside of the school's auditorium, and she hoped I could come see them.
When those same eighth-graders graduated, they and their family members marched by the beautifully rendered polar bear, white Bengal tiger, blue whale, burrowing owl, African wild dog and more.
"Some of these animals might not continue to exist when the children get to be adults," Evermann said.
The students chose the animals they wanted to paint and spent time researching facts and photos of their chosen species. Evermann gave them artist-quality brushes and set them to work.
"A lot of the colors in here were not paints I had given them," she said. "They had to learn to mix and put in shadows and details. It was an awesome experience. When we were down here working, it was as quiet as can be."
Next year's eighth-graders, Evermann said, will add endangered insects and plant species to the murals.
The students I spoke to were excited about playing the role of teachers to the younger students.
"A lot of the children in our school, they're young," eighth-grader Danielle Velazquez told me. "They don't know what they're doing to hurt the environment, so we wanted to show them the animals they're hurting."
I love (and recognize) that feeling of forever stamping a moment and a place that has meaning to you. Even more, I love teachers who understand the value in that and create those opportunities for the children they've been entrusted to shape.
"People outside of this school community often don't recognize the potential that's in our children," Evermann said. "And the awareness and talent they have, that they never really have the ability to speak about."
Evermann's school isn't one that attracts a lot of attention. Families don't vie desperately for lottery spots there or prep their children to test in there. Close to 93 percent of its students come from low-income families, according to Chicago Public Schools.
Evermann has high hopes for them. We all should.
"What I hope is adults and our society begin to wake up to the incredible potential in our children," she said. "It's so important that they are seen and heard."
And invited to leave their mark.