In the closing chapter of the Phillip C. Showell Elementary School mural, it was the students themselves who presented their school mural to the community.
Fourth- and fifth-graders served student ambassadors at the March 7 ribbon-cutting and community night. They led parents and guests along their new massive Selbyville history mural, which fills both sides of the arts hallway.
Ambassadors were chosen, one per class, to study Selbyville history and lead tours.
Painted by children, the mural itself invites guests to tour the hallway: “You have to understand the Selbyville that was … to understand the Selbyville that is,” the text reads.
The “#OurTown” mural shows Sussex County’s adventures in crops, poultry, railroads, tourism, education, community and more.
Artist John Donato is known for his whimsical, student-centric murals, in which he gives kids a few lessons and instructions, then releases them to start painting. At the end of the month, he finished the mural with text, stories of Selbyville and bold black lines to make all the students’ work pop.
“He has a way of making all the figures so enticing. They’re cute. Even the swamp monster is cute!” Bunting said of Donato’s style.
Yes, even the Selbyville Swamp Monster appears in the mural, in all his grizzled glory. The legend reportedly stemmed from a 1960s prank between a young Fred Stevens, in costume, encouraged by Ralph Grapperhaus, editor of Delmarva News. Children feared to drive through the Great Cypress Swamp for years after that.
“I like the swamp monster. It was a fun story to tell them, too. They all laughed,” fourth-grader Armanto Zamudio Ruiz said of his tour groups.
“I think it’s a great experience to paint it and be a tour guide. It was very fun. I liked the part before I was born, about how we got the chickens, and the fire part, how that happened, and why we have different things now than there used to be,” said J.P. Loose, a fourth-grader who only recently moved to town.
“And when we get older, we can come back and visit,” Zamudio Ruiz said.
Guiding the project down to the last scheduled tour, art teacher Laurie Hall nearly lost her voice during the festivities. But she made the project happen, from the grant-writing to months of historical research. That’s all while serving as the school’s 2017-2018 Teacher of the Year.
At the ribbon-cutting, special guest Delaware Secretary of Education Susan Bunting called Selbyville a little town with a big heart. Bunting is the former school district superintendent, a onetime PCS Teacher of the Year and a proud Selbyville native, whose parents owned a store in town.
Fifth-graders from the Boys with Purpose group served as guards for the memorabilia displays at the event, which included old newspapers, photos and other relics.
“We’re supposed to tell people not to touch anything,” said James Moore, one of several boys who were looking serious in suits and sunglasses.
The event was part of a larger community night, which include a book fair and science fair.
The original Mr. Showell
The original Phillip C. Showell was born in the late 1800s. As a black man in rural Sussex County, he worked hard all his life and gave to the community by donating land for Selbyville’s “colored” school, which served Grades 1 to 8.
Fifth-grader Jariah Hill imagined how crowded that original two-room schoolhouse might have been, with one class for elementary students and one class for older kids.
Her favorite piece of the mural, she said, is the depiction of Showell himself, sitting on a rocking chair under a large tree, the “custodian of the community.”
“It’s just amazing, because he built it from the ground up, so it’s a good thing we have a school to go to,” Hill said.
Today, the elementary school serves children of all races and is named for its original benefactor.
“It’s a dream come true to be a part of this celebration to honor Pop-Pop, you know?” said Stephanie Showell Haygood, his granddaughter-in-law. “We’re all just so touched today. My heart is full.”
He made his own money, bought the land and donated it when the need came. But Showell was also beloved in his family.
“He’s the only grandfather I knew,” said Barbara Marshall, who said Showell married her grandmother and adopted his wife’s children. “I didn’t realize how strong he was. … He had an injury to his back. I don’t know how he did it, but he used to lift me up when I was 2 years old.”
“He was a jolly person, and very spiritual and caring. He was a family person,” said Peggy Showell Johnson, who remembers her great-uncle Showell visiting her house every Sunday on their way to church when she was little.
“One of mother’s brothers was named after him,” Johnson said, “and just looking back at the pictures of the family, and just knowing that what he did here for the school, that’s just—”
“There’s no words,” Haygood finished.