Northern's Locker Murals Are a Visual Extravaganza

Photo Essay

This is part of Northern Notables, a collection of interviews with NSS Alumni who have made an impact in their personal and professional lives.
images best viewed on a wide screen

by Matt Kassirer

If you haven’t been inside Northern since the late 1990s, you probably haven’t seen the school’s incredible locker murals. There are legends about how it all got started, and I got slightly different stories from different teachers. Spanning all 3 floors of the school, Northern's locker murals are a stunning collective accomplishment.
For the most part, Northern appears to be timeless, never changing. There is talk of a much-needed auditorium renovation, and of creating super-flexible tech-forward rooms that give teachers and students cutting edge tools for collaboration and learning. But mostly, probably, we all consider 851 Mt. Pleasant Ave a rock of a memory, a thing you can count on forever. Like billion-year-old mountain ranges made of granite.

In Fall 2019, having been invited to check out the NSS Foundation, I had reason once more to meander the school's halls. Upon entering though, I was immediately blown away. Huge swathes of lockers had become canvases for students to depict the school's subject areas. What's more, these murals feature ideas. Big ideas. None of this was here in the 90s.
Northern lockers – mental health
Northern locker murals – Monet
loackers WellNSS
Entering through the South Doors, the front hall is a showcase of numerous murals. Today's big issues – from mental health to the pressures of social media (embodied in ideas about wellness) – get a big presence. It's amazing to see. In my day, we were tending to the importance of affirmative action in the work place, we did United Way Week, sex ed was an important part of phys ed, and the TDSB organized gender issues conferences. 
I continue towards the auditorium. Slowly. A mural dedicated to the great phys ed teacher Clarke Pulford is rendered in Northern's blue and red. The United Way gets it own mural as well. The act of discovering these murals feels like hitting an anthropological goldmine. You immediately intuit that the school's three floors will be packed full of colour.
Arriving at the North end of the front hall, the domain of English, I decide to head up to the 3rd floor via the NW corner stairwell. There's something satisfying about scaling the full stairwell, both flights. The stairs are wide, and huge windows at each landing ensure lots of light. I take it two steps at a time. At the top I push through the glass doors, and behold ... also the domain of English.

The murals here reflect a love of books, storytelling and philosophy. 
Northern locker murals – English Dept – books + dragon
Northern lockers – Petit Prince
Perhaps my favourite mural in the school features Le Petit Prince, what some consider the greatest short story in the existentialist canon. Published during the Second World War, the author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry imagines his meeting with a child, Le Petit Prince, who tells him his story and why he has come to Earth. The mural (shown above) depicts the book's famous excerpt "On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux." Left in its original french is a lovely nod to Canada being a bilingual country. Translated to English: "One can only see well with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye." 

While there are entire university courses dedicated to unpacking the meaning of this book, this excerpt is worth a brisk explanation. Le Petit Prince is having a dialogue with a wise fox. The fox is explaining that it is only when we are "tamed" by the bonds of friendship that we radically change our perception of others and the world, bringing us into a new reality. In a simple sense: without friends, we are bored; with friends, happiness appears. But the fox's vision of the heart runs deeper, for the heart is our meaning-maker, and it corresponds to the realization that we depend on everything that populates the universe to arrive at meaning and to feel valuable. The things we touch and use and see all take on meaning when we touch and use and see them. What lies unanswered is how each of us will interpret the vast and stunning notion that everything is united, everything is linked.

What a thing to put in front of young people. 

Here's a philosophical refresher on Le Petit Prince if you want more of that.
Ok ... where are we ... ahhh yes, 3rd floor, heading south through the light-bathed front hall. This is the Art corridor and the murals here are some of the most arresting in the school – psychedelic even. 
Northern locker murals – English Dept – mushrooms
Northern lockers – art tree hand
Northern lockers – fist
Dave Lougheed playing on the Canadian National Men's team for 13 years, playing in the Rugby World Cup four times.
As I approach the SW corner of the 3rd floor, directly above The South Doors, it's clear I've left Art and am entering the domain of Science. 

Me, I was a physics and chemistry kid. I knew kids who took biology, but not me. No way I was going to contend with all that memorization. Physics and chemistry was the cool stuff – the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos, the sheer math of it, the forces that bind an atomic nucleus together, the decay of radioactive isotopes.

Fast forward 25 years though, and now I'm suddenly hooked on cellular biology thanks to the Coronavirus. You've probably heard of Sars-COV-2's spike protein – it's the protein that Moderna and Pfizer's mRNA vaccines teach our body to identify. But ... did you know that each unit of Sars-COV-2 is an ecosystem of 29 proteins that work together like a team, with each protein having its own job?

Queue Science Mural:
Northern lockers – science
Now in the 3rd floor's South hall, walking towards the back of the school,  the SE corner stairwell ahead will take me down a flight to the Drama department. I descend the stairs, push through two sets of doors and bingo: an extensive stretch of murals. This is the world of drama – a set of dark rooms where kids stretch their boundaries, finding new ways to be, stepping into great characters, learning to trust their fellow actors. If you've ever been to Stratford, or a Mirvish play, or Broadway in New York City, this humble section of Northern's 2nd-floor-back-hall feels especially wonderful – a place that fuels self-esteem and risk-taking.

The mural below is entitled Theatre History:
Northern lockers – drama
There are many more murals than the ones I have included here.
Let's call this Murals Part 1. 
Stay tuned for Murals Part 2.
In case you're in need of a good look at some clean, un-muralized lockers, here are a few images of the back hall 1st floor, looking North.
Northern doorway
Northern back hall
They asked me to kindly leave the band because my trumpeting skills were not up to par.
–  Dave Lougheed about NSS band


Matt Kassirer NSS'95 is a Photoshop artist, designer, photographer and writer with a client roster that ranges from tech to venture capital, entertainment to travel. He is totally jazzed about public education, is a product of many great teachers, and, as an NSSF Director, loves this opportunity to give back to the Northern community. Matt makes Toronto his home, but prefers exploring strange and wonderful places.