A classmate’s parting gift for Boston Latin class
Phillip Sossou spent the past four months secretly sketching portraits of seniors at Boston Latin School, capturing their smiles, the glint in their eyes, the contours of their faces.
And early Friday morning — the final day of classes for seniors — the Roslindale teenager went to the school with six friends and finished affixing 411 charcoal portraits along the first-floor walls.
It made for a stunning display of school pride, a gift Sossou said he wanted to leave with his classmates.
“Our class has been kind of divided,” said Sossou, an 18-year-old. “Having these pictures helps us to embrace our diversity.”
Latin School has been mired in negative news after allegations of racism surfaced, with students of color complaining that administrators were slow to respond to the use of racial epithets at the school.
The drawings — taped above the school’s purple lockers, near doorways, and along the hallway — aim to change a negative narrative around Sossou’s beloved school, he said.
The portraits — gleaned from Facebook posts and shots from Sossou’s smartphone — show seniors in their element, and came as a bolt out of the blue to most of them. One student is cuddling a cat, another flashed a peace sign, nearly everyone had a smile.
“I was trying to show everyone in a positive light,” Sossou said.
Justin Springle, an 18-year-old senior from Dorchester, marveled at Sossou’s collection as he stood near his own portrait. It looks slightly different than its subject. It does not show Springle’s high Afro, and his smile seems wider. But Springle said he was impressed by Sossou’s accuracy with the portraits.
“I’m so amazed to see how close some of these are to the actual people,’’ he said. “Some of them are spot on.”
Sossou is a long, lean teenager with a patch of gray hair — he’s had it since childhood. In his six years at the school, he has been heralded for his musical chops, playing baritone horn in the concert band and trumpet in the jazz band, said Paul Pitts, the school’s fine arts director.
But this academic year, Sossou took advanced placement visual arts and decided on the portraits as an independent project, said his arts teacher, Stephen Harris.
“He told me in September that he wanted to draw all 411 seniors,” Harris said. “And I said, ‘Phillip, I don’t think that’s possible.’ ”
Sossou was determined. He asked a guidance counselor for help obtaining a list of all the students graduating this spring. She steered him to the school registrar.
His first portrait was of himself, which he completed with the help of Harris. In it, his eyes are closed, his brows thick. He looks like he is relaxing.
“I was just trying to look cool,” he recalled.
Sossou drew every day, long after the last bell, long past 8 at night, long after the custodian’s warnings that it was time to leave the school building.
Around school, friends would see him with his art tube slung around his shoulders. He spent his breaks during jazz rehearsals drawing the portraits, recalled Kenneth Zhang, a 16-year-old student and fellow band member.
“It was a lot of hard work,” Zhang said, pausing to marvel at Sossou’s work. “It’s really emotional — and I’m not even a senior.”
Sossou — bound for Bunker Hill Community College this fall and later, he hopes, the University of Massachusetts Amherst to study computer science — said that when he began the project, he just wanted to get better with charcoal.
“But after that, the whole thing became altruistic,” he said.
Soon, he had drawn 50 portraits and then 100, then 200. He worked when he could, taking extended breaks only twice since early February before finishing up last week.
“There were times that I wanted to stop,” he said. “I thought they probably are not going to appreciate this because we are so divided.”
About 9:30 Thursday evening, he began to affix the portraits. He and six friends returned about 5:30 Friday morning and spent three hours putting up the rest, he said.
As the school day waned, the normal bustle in the hallways slowed, and students paused to gaze at the portraits and give him high hand slaps.
The portraits will be taken down June 8, when seniors come back to school one last time.
“This is awesome, man,” they said.