On a November morning, Farmland Elementary School Principal William Wilhoyte discovered 20 swastikas spray-painted on the parking lot and back wall of his school, just hours before visitors were to arrive for a student art fair.
Shocked at the defacements, the first such incident in his four years at the school, Wilhoyte worked quickly to paint over the graffiti. But the principal knew that much more than paint would be needed to erase the stain at Farmland, where nearly half of the 600 students are foreign-born and where differences in culture and race are a fact of life. There are a number of Jewish students, including 45 to 50 from Israel, many who have parents working at the National Institutes of Health, he said.
"As I was painting, I began to reflect on who does this kind of thing and for what purpose," Wilhoyte said. "At one point, I actually got physically sick. It nauseated me . . . . We had to do something."
A month later, there is a new sort of wall standing in a hallway of Farmland, which serves the neighborhoods around Seven Locks and Montrose roads. The wall is made of masking tape and paper bricks, each with a message of hope or a suggestion for making the world a better place. It is a response, in the words of one student, to people who write "nasty things."
"Don't be mean to Jewish buildings," first-grader Ivan Meyers said in his message to the graffiti writers. He composed his response after a class discussion of the incident, his teacher said.
"Write a letter to all the black and Jewish people," classmate Christina Gheen advised, as a way of being friendly to others. Sheryl Fred, 6, suggested what seemed to her to be the most practical solution: "If someone asks you for a loaf of bread, say yes."
The vandalism at Farmland occurred Nov. 1, a month before a planned Sensitivity Awareness Symposium in Montgomery County schools, a day students were to learn about religious and racial prejudice.
The incident was one of 170 public expressions of religious hatred and violence noted this year in the county by the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission, which has been keeping track of such acts since 1980. Police have made no arrests in the case and school officials say that other anti-Semitic statements scrawled alongside the swastikas have led them to believe the incident was more than just an insensitive childish prank.
"We decided we did not want an outside force to have a negative impact on our school," Wilhoyte said. "We wanted to take something that was initially negative and make it a positive.
The creation of the student-built "kindness wall" has been interesting to watch, he said. "A closeness has come out of it that I don't think anyone expected."
Each day last week, classes worked on their contributions to the structure. An evening was set aside for parents to come and work with their children. Older students made a short film about the wall that will be entered in the state film contest and made available to other Montgomery schools.
"It was pretty shocking to see [the vandalism] this school because there are so many races and religions here, and Jews were singled out," said Emily Katz, one of the fifth-grade students who initiated the film project. "We wanted to do this to make students of other schools aware of what is going on."
"We can't change people with a film or a wall," said 10-year-old Rachel Chernikoff, another of the aspiring film makers. "But we might be able to persuade people that you can't do these kinds of things."