Lauren Mandal in her Randburn Elementary School

Sean Adams/WCBS 880

Stories From Main Street: NJ Art Teacher Gives School New Life

February 17, 2019 - 4:00 pm

FAIR LAWN, N.J. (WCBS 880) — Fair Lawn art teacher Lauren Mandal lives her life in Technicolor and spends every day breathing new life into the Radburn Elementary School with inspiration from a Renaissance master.

“You got to look up, like Michelangelo,” Mandal told WCBS 880’s Sean Adams.

Her students are painting the ceiling tiles throughout the school, adorning them with inspirational quotes from the books that they are reading.

“All the books this year are based around mindfulness, so we’re painting those book covers and that's closer to the library and now we're starting to work our way, we'll try to do like, maybe some sports quotes once we get closer to the gym,” the art teacher explained.

Radburn Elementary School Artwork
Sean Adams/WCBS 880

But it’s not just the ceiling tiles that are getting a makeover. Walk through the halls of the elementary school and you’ll find the walls, lockers and water fountains all colorfully decorated by students of all ages.

“It just kind of wakes up the halls and wakes up the students and it feels fresh and new,” Mandal said.

Fifth grader Chloe Ilenia is a Michelangelo in training — she tells Adams exactly how their work comes to life.

“She gets a box of ceiling tiles and then we think of like a quote and then we like write it down and then we cover it with sharpie and then we paint it and once it dries, we put it on the ceiling.”

Mandal says it all began during her interview when she saw a water fountain in the basement.

“So I'm in the basement, like ground level, and I'm like, ‘oh my god, I feel like I'm under the sea and there's a water fountain.’ I'm got inspired paint the water fountain area so it looks like we're under water and, I don't know, it just kind of like started evolving,” she says.

Radburn Elementary School Artwork
Sean Adams/WCBS 880

Mandal says she’s grateful for the opportunities she has had to recreate the students’ environment.

“I can't stop, I really can't. I love my job and I feel like I'm being an artist and that's really hard for artists to, you know, make a living. So, I feel very blessed and I make sure that my students know that and the people I work with,” Mandal said. “I feel so lucky to be doing what I love.”

And it’s not just the art teacher who loves the work.

“I struggled I honestly struggled with this young lady because she has completely transformed my school, the children and she fits in so beautifully and we are quite fortunate to have stolen her from another school district,” said Radburn principal Jill Lindsey. “I told her she’s not allowed to leave, she can never leave me and if she does I will be following her around.”

Radburn Elementary School Artwork
Sean Adams/WCBS 880

Lindsey adds, “The students can absolutely not get enough of art this year.”

But Mandal isn’t just cultivating a creative environment; she also wants her students to remain positive and confident in themselves.

She does this by beginning every class by striking a gong with a rubber mat and allowing her students to recite the classroom mantra: “I am smart, I am kind, I am important, I am an artist!”

Radburn Elementary School Artwork
Sean Adams/WCBS 880

Her students attest to her methods, saying she makes them feel more confident in their creativity.

“She makes me feel happy like when I’m doing art, cause like other years, I thought that I wasn’t that good and now I think I’m getting better,” 5th grader Ilenia said.

Lindsey says without Mandal, the Radburn Elementary School wouldn’t be what it is today.

“This is an elementary school and it should look like a place for kids wanna just be and where children thrive and color is explosive,” Lindsey said. “She's going to make that happen, I have no doubt.”

And what’s next for Mandal? She says she’s going to “paint the world.”