CHICAGO – The NATO summit the weekend of May 19 brought foreign diplomats and throngs of demonstrators with diverse causes to Chicago. Morrison Junior High School students were there amid the action, all in the name of art and culture.
Art instructor Nick Bonneur escorted 59 students and chaperones through the city with the assistance of former MJHS art instructor Ned J. Nesti Jr. They did so with the partnership and financial support of the Chidren's Art Preservation Association.
The key to remaining safe, while providing worthwhile educational entertainment, was in the preparation. Chaperones were ready for last-minute itinerary changes and had their students set toward flexibility. Brenda Workman, Kris Schmidt, Richard "Opie" Callihan, Karen Magana, Audrey Humphrey, Andrew Holt and Antony Deter were valuable assets in keeping students focused through the day. R.C. Smith Transportation's driver also was a key player, adjusting to sudden road closures and unpredictable police activity.
Most of the 15-hour day was spent on Chicago's South Side. The tour began in Hyde Park, home of the University of Chicago, Barack Obama and the Museum of Science and Industry. A quick group photo in front of Lorado Taft's 1920 sculpture Fountain of Time preceded the first scheduled tour site. Frank Lloyd Wright's mastepiece Robie House was slightly hampered by the hovering military helicopters, at times muffling the voice of the tour guides.
The group moved on to the Oriental Institute, featuring near- and Middle-Eastern antiquities, followed by an entertaining tour of the Rockefeller Chapel and portions of the University of Chicago campus – a festival in the quad and a stop at Henry Moore's Nuclear Energy, a bronze sculpture commemorating the site of the first controlled atomic explosion. The campus tour was led by Zachary Johnson, a UC graduate and Morrison High School alumnus from the Class of 1999. He lives in Hyde Park and has joined several art field trips in the past as a guest lecturer.
Lunch was along Lake Michigan in Burnham Park at 39th Street, the final exit off south Lake Shore Drive before police barricades prevented further access to the NATO summit. Students spent time in the park and took a photo from the shoreline with the iconic Chicago skyline behind them.
The National Museum of Mexican Art, located in the vibrant neighborhood of Pilsen, offered students their next cultural experience. The museum features traditional and contemporary artwork; the neighborhood itself has murals and street vendors with the backdrop of conversations in Spanish. Pilsen has become a center for Mexican culture.
At this point, the tour leaders were at a crossroads – travel downtown or go to Plan B? Several calls were made to the Chicago Police Department and Chicago Transit Authority. After being assured that the downtown area had been "without incident," the group stuck to the itinerary, taking the Pink Line elevated train to the Loop.
After a brief ride 20 feet above street level, the group disembarked at Harold Washington Library and was greeted by dozens of uniformed officers.
"Are you here for civil disobedience?" one asked.
"We are here for art," seemed to satisfy the commanding officer, though the group's maps and itineraries were more likely what put him at ease.
The tour of downtown architecture and monumental sculpture was an odd experience. The featured monuments were overshadowed by the social tension. Police greatly outnumbered civilians int the street, a fact each and every business owner lamented. At every corner, officers approached, mostly in a friendly manner, and questioned the group's intentions. At no point were the students in harm's way. In fact, two sites were eliminated from the itinerary on the advice of the police. In their words, "anarchists are doing their thing," the police were responding.
Chicago City Hall was shut down and the Thompson Center, property of the state of Illinois, had the most sobering security detail: stoic uniformed state troopers side by side every 10 feet surrounding the building. For good measure, two menacing German shepherds guarded Jean Dubuffet's ironically-named sculpture Monument with Standing Beast.
Free time to shop in empty stores and a return to Pilsen for authentic Mexican cuisine rounded out the trip for the Morrison group. They rolled into town as scheduled at 10:30 p.m.
Student feedback was very positive, as many sensed they had experienced a part of history.
These are the memories students will carry with them throughout their lives and the reason Morrison Junior High School and CAPA continue to send students into the realm of cultural adventure.
Editor's Note: Nick Bonneur is an art instructor at Morrison Junior High School.