The PTA of my old school recently invited me to see a ‘Wall of Honour’ they had installed on the main school corridor which, over the years, must have witnessed millions of pupil, parent and teacher journeys all in the search for the holy grail of a perfect education.
Part of the lead up to the installation was a request by the PTA to send in photos of what its alumni had done since they had stopped patrolling that corridor in search of the perfect girl or boy friend and left the school for good.
I duly obliged with a few photos of my own and as I approached the school became increasingly intrigued with what they had done with the photos on the corridor walls.
How would they frame this ‘wall of honour’? How would they stop errant 4th formers from making they own marks on the august faces beaming at them from the privilege of their post-school hide-aways? Would the ‘wall of honour’ be accompanied at some point by a floor of concrete which everyone would be invited to put their own footsteps into, making the corridor full of indelible marks on both its walls and floor?
All that would be needed to complete the effect would be a ceiling of the most anointed: those alumni who had developed stellar careers – or serious drug habits – which would mean they could only be found by being dragging them off a different ceiling or out of the heavens.
So as I was escorted down to the corridor of a million journeys, it’s fair to say that calling the experience underwhelming would be an understatement. It’s six pictures in frames underneath the PTA title board: the complete antithesis of what telling a good story on a wall might look like: something the Whalls were both pretty good at.
It’s amazing how we think that just sticking something on a bare wall is better than nothing. Actually, it’s worse than nothing as at least a bare wall has some sense of purity to it. Desecrating it with some half-thought out plan demeans both the plan and the wall. Better to do nothing than just gesture, aimlessly.
Trouble is, a wall invites you to make a mark. Challenges you to add Something where nothing’s actually needed. It says, go on then, if you think you’re so important, beat this. Make your mark count more than my empty space. And more often than not we get it wrong, especially in public spaces where getting the marks right is even more important, given you’re speaking to far more many people than you would do than if you were in the privacy of your own living room.
The Whalls though weren’t simply about stories on walls – but in windows which were part of the wall; or a different type of wall with a different purpose. You wonder, does the brick work support the glass? Or does the glass determine what kind of brick work is needed? What comes first, the window or the wall?
Whatever the answer, the PTA of the old alma mater could do with some serious rethinking of what the purpose of the walls, floor and ceiling of a school corridor is all about.