A decade can just speed by.
Robert Hay started his tenure as an art teacher at Coyote Hills Elementary School when the building opened in 2005. A former graphic artist who had briefly taught at a Catholic school in northwest Denver, Hay was drawn to the Cherry Creek School District by the prospect of working in a brand new building and the glowing recommendations about the district from colleagues.
Ten years later, the Colorado native has helped imbue the relatively young elementary school with a hallowed tradition. He's left his permanent mark on the Coyote Hills community in the form of markers, colored pencils and a knack for caricature. Hay's legacy at the school consists of more than his consistent work as an engaged teacher who leaves an impact on students long after they leave the classroom. He's also built a tactile and visual tribute to hundreds of hard-working students who have attended the school since it opened its doors.
One only has to look as far as the hallway just outside of Hay's classroom to see the very physical and visual mark of Hay's work as both a teacher and an artist.
The Coyote Hills "Hall of Fame" is a collection of hundreds of colorful caricatures of students from the past 10 years who all share a common, impressive achievement. Every one of the subjects displayed on the walls earned their portrait through a lot of hard work and commitment. Specifically, any student who reads one million words and completes all of the associated work with the feat has been immortalized on paper by Hay.
"When the school first opened, we were trying to figure out a way to reward kids for reading and motivate kids to start reading more," Hay said as he worked on the first million-word winner of the 2015-16 school year, a student named Max who'd requested to be drawn as a ninja character from a popular line of Lego toys. "One of the fourth-grade teachers threw it out there, that we'd give the student a caricature like you see at Elitches or Casa Bonita for reading one million words.
"At the beginning it seemed like an unattainable goal," he recalled.
But the students immediately proved to be ambitious. The first year saw a handful of students reach the million-word count, proving their achievement through notebook work, book reports and story maps. Their likenesses went up on a bulletin board in the hallway, and a school-wide movement found its roots.
"It's just grown since then," Hay said. "It's amazing how many kids reach that goal by the end of the school year."
Hay's portraits have long since outgrown a mere bulletin board. The hallway now bears more than 300 portraits, every one hand-drawn and colored by Hay. It's the school's own version of the National Portrait Gallery, a kind of living yearbook that celebrates literacy and creativity all at once.
A row of photographs has also taken its place among the drawings; these are the students who've reached the milestone of reading 4 million words in a single school year.
"I think of some of those kids that are on that 4-million word wall and how motivated they are to read," Hay said. "It almost becomes a competition. A lot of those kids set those goals early on and it's amazing to see how they can push each other."
The word counts even become a kind of prize that lasts far beyond a single school year. The current title holder of the most words read, for example, has her portrait hung in a special place in the hallway. The impressive total reached during her 5th-grade year keeps drawing her back.
"That stands up there as her prize possession," Hay said with a slight chuckle. "She keeps coming back and she'll check on it to make sure that no one has beat her record."
Such initiative from the students has made Hay's caricatures a kind of prized status symbol. That much is clear in the sheer number of portraits – the hallway is quickly filling up, and Hay said the gallery is set to eventually expand to a neighboring hallway.
That will mean more work for Hay, who spends an average of 30 minutes on each caricature. After hundreds and hundreds of portraits, his skills as a caricature artist have developed. Hay, who originally saw himself as a cartoonist, can see a progression from the first drawings he did 10 years ago.
Like tracking an artist's progress in a lifetime museum retrospective, it's easy to see that growth on the Hall of Fame walls. Simple and stark caricatures of students with the school's Coyote mascot give way to more elaborate elements – subjects are playing soccer, traipsing through the wizarding world of Harry Potter or deep sea diving. The portraits have taken on a richer dimension that have made them all the more valuable for students working to hit their million-word goal.
It's hard for Hay to put his own artistic progress in proper perspective. As he wandered down the hall and pointed out memorable caricatures, the weight of a decade seemed to suddenly hit all at once.
"I look down the hallway and realize how quickly 10 years can go," he said. "It doesn't seem like I drew half of those. It's like an archive of students. You look and say, 'I remember that kid when they came to art class and did this or I had this great conversation with them about that.' It's a good reminder, almost a yearbook.
"I'm proud of it, and I know the kids are extremely proud of it as well," he added.