Reading Colson Whitehead’s novel The Nickel Boys spurred the project. The novel is set in the 1960s against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement and is based on the real story of abuses at the reform school Dozier in Florida.
Students read the book together in class and discussed it along the way. We broke the inquiry into a series of three separate projects. The first two were short and nearly completed in four classes but then the pandemic cut the project short. We had hoped to tie the novel to contemporary situations and had planned readings on the phenomena of “R.I.P. shirts” – the custom t-shirts for deceased family members and friends that are common in urban culture and in the neighborhood of the school. Our final project would have been for the students to design their own shirts to memorialize a fallen friend, family member, or historical figure. They would be exhibited by being collectively worn on the same day at school and hung in an exhibition.
We tried to align the art activities with what was happening in the novel. Students in the novel carved epithets in the tables at Nickel, so we carved in blocks of wood with nails and then the students darkened or emphasized their texts with pencil and paint. It was physically difficult to carve the wood which made the students think about using language economically. We discussed the difference between an epithet and an epitaph and looked at examples of both, including texts that were carved into grave stones.
In The Nickel Boys, one of the main characters in the novel tricked the school doctor into hanging out in the infirmary by eating soap powder, so we wrote about a time we had successfully tricked an authority figure.
The project was interrupted by COVID-19. We were only able to meet for four sessions. The book we were reading, and the main project we hoped to complete required an engagement with very painful material. The students found the book depressing and also difficult. For Marc, he was still just getting to know the students and being physically present together seemed important for working from a text like this.