At one point, there was a chance Latanya Briggs might not even graduate from high school. Today, though, she not only takes away a diploma, she leaves something behind.
Future students won't be able to miss it, nor resist learning the story behind it: a four-paneled mural, a vividly colored and thoughtfully imagined depiction of one girl's vision of Baltimore's black history, and her generation's role in keeping it alive.
When I first heard about this project, I almost took a pass on writing about it, envisioning yet another well-meaning yet ultimately trite rendering of the usual characters - the Frederick Douglasses and the Thurgood Marshalls and the like - whose flesh-and-blood heroics somehow tend to get lost in the overly reverent translation to the tribute mural.
This one, though, is different.
The mural that was unveiled yesterday at the Baltimore Urban League Academy, an alternative high school that will graduate 40 students today, turns out to be more about the process of discovering our local history - and finding a way to tell it.
"It tells a story about how we got the information," Briggs, 18, said. "We researched, we took pictures, we went to the Maryland Historical Society. "We went to our elders, people with wisdom."
Briggs will be the first to tell you she's no artist. Instead, it turns out she's more of an art impresario - she found a way to hire an artist and raise the funds to pay him.
The story begins when Briggs landed last fall at the academy, something of a school of last resort for students who have failed or are at risk of dropping out at more traditional high schools.
"It's for people who need a second chance," she said. Briggs declines to elaborate on what happened at her previous school, Carver Vo-Tech, except to say: "I made bad choices, I got put out of school."
From there she went to the alternative Harbor City High School, and then the Urban League Academy. She was inspired by its location - in the league's headquarters in the historic Orchard Street Church, whose long repute as part of the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves continues, despite some evidence to the contrary - but less so by the school's actual walls.
"It just opened this year, so we had really plain, white walls," Briggs said. "I was like, 'We should do something about this. We should get some paint.'"
From there, her dream grew - not just paint slapped on the wall, but a mural. Not just a mural, but a black history mural. Not just a black history mural, but ... well, you get the picture.
She started writing letters and going through the phone book, and happened across Young Audiences of Maryland, which raises money to fund arts education in schools.
"Usually it's the principal, or the teacher or a parent who calls us," said Stacie Sanders, the group's executive director. "I've never had a student call me."
Briggs explained what she was trying to accomplish, and even though it wasn't like Young Audiences' usual projects - more typically, the group sponsors performances, workshops and artists-in-residence - Sanders was intrigued.
"She just had quite a fire," Sanders said.
Sanders ultimately helped Briggs write up grant proposals that led to two groups, Youth as Resources and the Abell Foundation, giving her a total of nearly $6,000, which paid for materials and the hiring of Ryan Hartley Smith, a 2006 graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, to help Briggs and her classmates create the mural.
"Latanya has all these ideas, this vision, a very specific vision," Smith said.
He accompanied the students to the meeting they held with community members, talked extensively with them and started making some preliminary sketches. Soon the group was overwhelmed with ideas and images, more than could be understandably and meaningfully contained on even their large canvases - three panels measuring 6 feet by 6 feet and one 6 feet by 8 feet.
"It became apparent it would be better to do something symbolic," Smith said.
What's interesting about the mural is how the famous people - Thurgood Marshall is there, as is Jada Pinkett Smith, or rather, she will be as soon as Ryan Smith finishes a few outstanding details - largely are in the background of the various panels. In the foreground instead are people Briggs calls the unsung heroes that she and her classmates met during their research, as well as the students themselves, researching and painting local history.
While Smith did most of the drawing, some of the students discovered untapped talents - Smith is particularly proud of a student who did the detail work of one of the faces, and other students turned out to have a great eye for colors and patterns.
"The experience for the kids has been awesome," said Principal Patricia Lowe-Gould. "We don't have art here on this site, but through this opportunity, we found we have some very artistic students here."
The group worked on the murals after school during the month of May. Well, most of it: one week was mostly lost to the prom, Smith said.
Briggs' mother ended up cooking for the group occasionally - some feared the skinny Smith might be an actual starving artist - as the students put in long hours. Smith brought the students to the recent opening of an exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art in which he has a painting, and, yesterday, was part of the unveiling that turned the school into something of a gallery opening as well - the recently finished acrylics freshly hung on white walls, a crowd of student artists, friends and benefactors sipping drinks and eating strawberries.
While Briggs admittedly is still not an artist, she made her own discoveries: that she has a knack for fundraising, grant-writing and proposal-presenting. And in fact, the project led to two local internships and a scholarship. This fall, she plans to go to Baltimore City Community College and ultimately transfer to Morgan State, where she plans to major in political science and minor in theater. A disparate combination?
Not really, not for her long-term goal: "I hope to run for mayor in the future."
Find Jean Marbella's column archive at baltimoresun.com/marbella