Art teacher Aileen Michel's heart may be in her bustling classroom at Millikan Middle School, but her spirit can be found throughout the Sherman Oaks campus.
The palette of the brightly colored lockers is her design.
The Rainbow Council, made up of youngsters who advocate tolerance and compassion, is her brainchild.
And the creative murals and inspired messages decorating the classroom buildings - "Kindness is a choice and a way of life," says one - are keepsakes of the artistic and life lessons she imparts to her students.
"As you walk through the campus, they talk to you," Michel said. "You're hit with reminders to be a better person."
Now in her 32nd year at Millikan, Michel remains a hands-on instructor - demonstrating, coaching, encouraging and correcting as she teaches theory, skills and techniques that most art students don't learn until college.
"I want to be the teacher I never had," she said.
Last week, seventh-graders crowded around Michel as she help them finish up holiday cards and bookmarks adorned with color washes, stippled shadows and the distinct dots of pointillism.
The next period, eighth-graders in Michel's advanced art class worked painstakingly on pencil drawings of the human skeleton, using a model perched on a folding chair in the middle of the classroom.
Hunched over his drawing, Miles Spano, 13, expressed hope that he'll someday join former students of Michel's who have received college scholarships to study art.
"This is what I want to do," he said. "And Mrs. Michel said she'd help me."
Millikan is home to more than 2,200 students, a newly affiliated charter that includes a performing arts magnet and science academy. With those specialized programs enticing students from around Los Angeles Unified, the school has long boasted of a widely diverse population.
"I remember walking through the lunch area and seeing that kids were only eating with those of their same ethnicity," Michel said. "They didn't realize the huge advantage of being in a school like this, with people from all over the world."
In an effort to spur interaction, Michel created the Rainbow Council, a handpicked group of eighth-graders that extols acceptance and understanding.
There are group discussions and guest speakers, including Allison Gray, a writer and performer with cerebral palsy whom Michel taught years ago at Millikan.
Rainbow Council members are also involved in community outreach, with service projects to help impoverished or abused adults and children.
Members are wrapping up a holiday drive of stuffed animals that they'll deliver to youngsters at hospitals, shelters and social service agencies. In the spring, they collect clothing and blankets for MEND, a Pacoima-based poverty agency.
Rainbow Council members receive a small heart-shaped pin - a reminder, Michel said, of their desire to touch someone's heart or brighten their day. And each year, the council paints a campus mural that encourages classmates to live generous and respectful lives.
"That's my philosophy," Michel said. "Choose to be an angel on Earth and do good in the world."email@example.com