When the bell rings at about 3:30 p.m., as it does at the end of every school day at South Forsyth High School, thousands of students stream out of classrooms, heading for cars and buses, or to practice, club meetings and other after school activities.
But in the school’s main building, students are halted, disrupted by a large, head height wall that has been built out of boxes, tape and other items, running down the main artery of the school for a hundred feet or so, cleanly dividing the building’s east and west wings.
School leaders say that the wall is a remembrance, an art project, a history lesson and a statement on the walls – physical or mental – that have affected student’s lives and how they overcame them, all in one.
This coming Saturday, Nov. 9, marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, which divided Germany and its people for more than 20 years. Students and staff from South Forsyth’s German and Art programs have erected a replica Berlin Wall to give the school community a tangible example of that dark period in world history.
"We tried to make it real for them, rather than just giving them a history lesson. We wanted to make it personal," said German teacher Jonas Strecker. "Through building the wall we tried to make it more of an experiential learning activity."
"We're just trying to give more perspective than just the 5-second lesson on the wall," said Steffi Legall-Riddle, another German teacher at the school.
Over the last several months, students in the school’s German Club have been hard at work planning, painting and building the wall in conjunction with students from the school’s Art Society. They built the project in the school on Monday.
According to Alison Muraski, a fine arts teacher at the
school, students that worked on the project studied photos of the real Berlin
Wall and were asked to think about if “the wall was in their life” and how they
felt about it when painting the boxes.
"We talked about this concept of, 'If you had something to say, how do you layer all of that?' When you have strong feelings, how do you represent that, what colors go into those strong feelings?" Muraski said. "They may not understand the German language ... But I think they became more curious as [Strecker and Legall-Riddle] shared with us."
Muraski said that for many of the students, the painting process became a personal and therapeutic exercise.
"I had a few students tell me that they wanted to come and paint more because it was therapeutic,” she said.
While their students were painting and building the wall, Strecker and Legall-Riddle, both German natives, visited classrooms throughout the school, giving presentations on what the Berlin Wall was and sharing their own personal experiences of living in divided Germany before the wall was destroyed in 1989.
The teachers said they wanted to help students understand the events that led to the Berlin Wall being built and the long-reaching effects that it had on Germany, hoping to impress on them the consequences of geopolitical decisions and the power of peaceful non-violent protest.
Strecker told students about driving through the roadblocks
and watch towers on the western side of the wall as a child in Germany.
"I grew up in divided Germany. I was born 12 years
after the wall was built, so to me it wasn't something new," he said. “So
it was easy for me to relate to them right now, because as a 16-year-old you
don't necessarily care about world peace, you care more about the math test
that you have the next day, which in my case, was actually true."
Legall-Riddle, who was 22 when the wall fell, was able to talk with students about how her family had been literally divided by it, half living on the eastern side and half on the western side, and how that divide kept them hoping for peace.
"For us, it always felt like that hope of having one country one day never really died," she said.
The response from students was positive overall, Strecker said, and even though most students can’t really connect with a historical event that is so unfamiliar to their lives, they hope that this opportunity gave students a new perspective to consider as they grow older and start making decisions about the world.
“That wall has done a lot of damage, and what I try to get across to the kids is that, hardly ever, if ever in history, a wall has solved problems. Usually walls create problems,” he said.
On Friday afternoon, Strecker says that the German club president and another club officer will read a speech to gathered students at the wall before ordering Principal Laura Wilson and the student body to "tear down this wall,” the same phrase that President Ronald Reagan said on June 12, 1987 to help end the Cold War.
“That will probably be therapeutic, too,” Muraski said.