FAIR LAWN, NJ – Fair Lawn art teacher, Lauren Mandal, begins every class unconventionally.
She begins by hitting a gong with a rubber mallet, and then enthusiastically reads aloud her classroom mantra: "I am Smart, I am Kind, I Am Important, and I am an Artist!" The students repeat each line in unison, increasingly louder after each line.
There is nothing conventional about Mandal’s class, and that’s the point.
Mandal is the new art teacher for Fair Lawn Public Schools, teaching K-5, and splitting her time between Lyncrest and Radburn Elementary Schools. On a recent visit, her classroom in Radburn seemed like a burst of sunshine, with students’ artwork on the walls, windows and eventually, the ceiling. Yes, the ceiling. Bob Marley music streamed from the classroom computer and students clamored to be a 'Mini Mandal' for the day: helper students who pass out art supplies. The helpers wear either a red or blue felt cape with the words ‘Mini Mandal’ painted inside a Superman-like diamond shape on the cape’s back.
Mandal’s mission, other than teaching expressionistic art, is to beautify the schools with art and lots of color.
“I love color and that’s why I paint the school. You feel different around color and I feel schools don’t have enough color. Color makes you feel a certain way,” said Mandal, an artist turned art teacher. She is often dressed colorfully and wears some of her own creations, like polymer clay earrings, and a tassel and wood block necklace. Her signature Dr. Marten boots are a good choice to combat the student’s wet paint that drips on the floor. She refers to it as “your cheese paint is coming off!”
Her most recent beautification project is at Radburn, where her fifth-grade class is painting 2-by-4-foot ceiling tiles with inspirational quotes such as, “I am Mindful,” or popular book titles like, “Be Kind.” When completed, they will be rehung on the lower level of the school between the multipurpose room and the library, with book titles positioned closer to the library entrance.
Mandal is starting on the lower level of Radburn, but her list of beautification projects is endless.
“We’re going to be painting murals in all the girls’ and boys' bathrooms. We’ll work on some quotes in collaboration with the principal and students,” she said. In the past, Mandal has beautified her previous schools’ stairs and windows, and wrapped trees with yarn. “We yarn-bombed the trees out there.”
This year, she also uses a lot of recyclable materials. “I love cardboard tubes, papier-mâché, plaster, cereal boxes, and clay. I look at everything and say how can I make it 3-D? Tape and tin foil are my best friends.”
Students are clearly having fun with the projects and with their new art teacher.
“She inspires us to keep going and never quit,” said fifth-grader Samantha Juszczak. “She is nice, fun, different, and a unique teacher.”
“She is funny and tells jokes,” said fifth-grader Harrison Talman. Smiling, he adds, “It’s like a tsunami hit the room.”
Throughout class, Mandal can be heard saying to students, “hot pizza coming in,” which means hold your freshly-painted project upright like a pizza box, as they carry it to a table for drying.
Similarly, students feel comfortable playing along.
“My brush is having a bad hair day,” called out one student, whose brush had been flattened while water coloring. Mrs. Mandal replies, “Take a dip in the pool!” The ‘pool’ is code for rinse your brush in the water cup.
Although she encourages a positive, fun environment, she strongly believes in empowering her students.
“It doesn’t matter if you can draw, the second you put the pencil to the paper, put your hands on the clay, and you start moving, you are making art,” said Mandal. “The art is the process of making.”
“The minute I walked in to her room the first week of school, you felt the positive energy,” said Superintendent Nick Norcia. “It was contagious in such a great way!” Radburn Principal Jill Lindsay added, “Our whole school has been transformed by her magical paintbrushes. She makes our school come alive!”
Mandal earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from William Paterson University with a concentration in sculp- ture and painting. She pursued a teaching degree a few years later. An art teacher in northern New Jer- sey for the past eight years, she resides in Fair Lawn with her husband, also an artist, and three-year-old twins.
You might see her riding her bike to school, weather permitting.
“They honk...and I ring my bell,” said Mandal, responding to sightings of her on her light blue Cruiser with rainbow ribbons. “It’s so great when they say ‘I saw YOU, there was a Mandal sighting. I love it!’”