Cassel’s tree promotes individuality, importance

Sophia Comas, Online Editor-in-Chief

Up until Nov. 4 of this year, there was nothing in the school that had everyone’s name on it. 

There was no recognition for the students who typically didn’t receive it, no physical representation of who each person is or the society they create together — that is, until Digital Learning Lab teacher Andy Cassel took matters into his own hands. 

During the summer of 2019, Cassel took advantage of the blank space on his summer-school walls to cultivate a paper tree that contains every single student’s first and last names on it — one name per leaf with thousands of leaves that go from the middle of the wall to the ceiling.

“I wanted to do something creative, unique and original,” Cassel said. “I really liked the idea of creating a tree just because there’s some symbolism and depth.”

The idea came to Cassel after he moved a laptop cart out of his room, creating the necessary space to encase the entire wall in paper leaves rather than lack-luster posters. According to Cassel, the original plan was to only include students from his classes using bigger leaves, but when he realized there was still too much wall space, he decided to go bigger.

“We got to the point where we realized that it was a very big space and we needed to fill it well,” Cassel said. “It just kind of grew into the thing that it is now.” 

To make the tree, Cassel enlisted the help of the main office staff to print off rosters for each grade. He began cutting individual leaves by hand until his wife suggested using a machine that would cut templated leaves 35 at a time. With every leaf, he crossed names off the rosters, rolled taped and stamped them on his wall. It took almost five months to completely finish, yet every day was worth it.

“The message I want to send is that every student matters,” Cassel said. “Every kid has a place to belong.”

With his message, Cassel wants the students who see the tree to feel as connected to Manhattan High as he does. He wants everyone to feel the value of unity and growth as well as individual success and acknowledgement.

“We’re all kind of here together,” Cassel said, “and regardless of [the] circumstances that brought us here, we’re here and there’s some real good that can happen just because we’re here.”

While he’s unsure of how the tree’s growth will continue for next year’s class, he is certain on making leaves for new students this semester and all of the students enrolled in Manhattan Virtual Academy, despite his limited time. 

Cassel’s unique aspect of creating a visual representation of MHS’s envirnment will hopefully be embodied in every student who sees it. He invites everyone to come find their leaf among their peers’ with the intention of sharing his belief that there is strength in unity and every student is important. 

“It’s a really cool thing,” Cassel said, “and it’s certainly something that I’m proud of just because it means that kids have the opportunity to know that they’re cared about and that they notice they matter and that they matter by name.”