Two years ago, Janet Rose began teaching sixth grade at Cairo Elementary School. The school year got off to a rocky start. Rose had replaced a beloved teacher, and she found it difficult to connect with her new students.
Rose found many of the students were disconnected with their hometown. They complained about having nothing to do.
In some ways, Rose said, it was hard to disagree. Cairo lacks many activities that would appeal to sixth-graders.
“But there is history,” Rose said.
So she began gathering artifacts and pictures from the heyday of Cairo, when businesses flourished and steamboats dotted the two rivers that surround it.
The students gradually became more interested in the history of their town. Many had never heard the stories and had not seen the pictures from a time when Cairo was a hub of activity.
Rose eventually assigned the kids to write songs about the town and took the best parts from all of them to make one class-written Cairo song.
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But Rose knew the students could do something more with this new appreciation.
“I wanted them to dream big; we need something big here,” Rose said. “I want them to own the town, to be proud of the town.”
So the idea was born to create murals that would document Cairo’s illustri-ous history.
The students designed and sold T-shirts. They raised enough money to pay for an artist and paint to create a mural on the side of a building on 34th and Sycamore streets.
Through a mutual friend, Rose found artist Heather Amundsen, who had resided in Cairo for six years after college and now lives in Paducah.
In September 2011, Amundsen, with the help of Rose’s sixth-grade students, painted a mural of the U.S.S. Cairo, an ironclad gun boat built in Mound City and used by the Union in the Civil War.
The completion of the first mural was motivation and an inspiration.
Rose said she worked hard to make sure the first mural happened, because she felt like kids in Cairo “always hear something is going to happen and it never happens.”
Heartened by the students’ accomplishment, Rose began to dream as big as she encouraged her stu-dents. What if they could paint the entire floodwall with the history of Cairo?
“If those kids can take on the town as a priority, then they’ll be proud of what they do,” Rose said.
When the next school year begins, Rose will have a third consecutive sixth-grade class to teach about the town.
The current river wall panels Amundsen is painting should be finished within a month. Other artists are lined up for successive panels, but funding is limited. Rose has appealed to individuals and businesses to help students fund the effort, but still needs more support.
“This whole thing is centered around God,” Rose said. “It all happens in its due time.”
On Twitter: @BrentStewartSI