Bathrooms: The Writing Is On The Wall

Good morning, class. Great presentations today! Everyone showed up and put in time and terrific effort. Today, as we look over your group work, let’s review what we have learned about audience and purpose and apply our rubric: “A successful persuasive campaign will have a clear message directly aimed at the concerns of a targeted audience.”

Let’s start with the group that focused on bathrooms. Who are the recipients of your message?

High school students using the bathroom.

Okay, great! Now, what is the purpose of your message?

To help them feel good about themselves while using the bathroom. And to also inspire them to keep the bathroom clean.

Fabulous ideas. Okay, let’s take a look at what you’re proposing. Some posters on the bathroom walls. Hmm, I see. Aha, this one is in Spanish. This one talks about superpowers. One about believing in yourself. Standing up. Trying hard. Okay, all right, well . . .  Let’s talk about this. Shall we try to imagine ourselves as teenagers seeing these posters in the school bathroom? 

This week, parent volunteers worked hard at Culver City High School to “bring some positive words and brighten up the school bathrooms.” The PTSA gave funds to put up positive affirmation signs in both English and Spanish. There’s no doubt that these folks worked hard and had the very best intentions at heart! I applaud their good hearts and intentions! 

But to help kids we have to know kids. And I predict the volunteers’ hard work will soon be for naught. 

The bathrooms at CCHS are notoriously awful. Kids don’t want to use them because they get vandalized and it’s where misbehaviors occur. Many kids hold ‘their business’ until they get home at the end of the long day. So, I appreciate from whence these efforts to beautify come. But what I don’t understand is why the volunteers think that these Etsy-like inspirational quotes are going to inspire those who conduct oppositional behavior to stop. In fact, is it not an invitation to respond with more opposition? 

These words land pretty ironically when posted in a bathroom; any kid with a sense of humor is going to be inspired to embellish.

“Believe in yourself” — as you’re trying to urinate?

“I can & I will.” Will what? Get this job done?

“No one can define you but you and that is your superpower” — as you sit on the throne. Captain Underpants has got nothing on these slogans! 

They posted “Every accomplishment starts with a decision to try” right next to the urinals? Try what? Not to miss the drain?

But the real miss was the adults and their good intentions. To not anticipate this kind of reaction from kids means a lot of hard work and disappointment for adults when it’s disrespected. Please don’t shoot the messenger. I personally mean no disrespect. But we can’t just blame kids when we don’t have a thumb on the pulse of adolescents. Administrators who work with teenagers can and should help bridge this gap, so parents don’t get discouraged from helping, and kids can get the continued support they deserve.

Even if the new bathroom affirmations don’t inspire this kind of smart aleck response, they simply remain out of touch with teenagers. The volunteers put the affirmations in English and in Spanish, so, again, we know their intentions to reach out to many are good. It goes back to the audience and purpose, though. If 2000 teenagers are your audience, it’s a select few to whom this needlepoint decor and Stuart Smalley diction would speak. PTSA parents, now there’s your audience. Decorate your living rooms and kitchen walls and pillows all you want this way. But a teenager’s environment? And that brings us back to purpose.

Why do kids act out in bathrooms? Why do they desecrate shared spaces they themselves need to use? Kids who do not feel seen, heard, or respected take the time to leave their mark. So there’s a real art to bringing these kinds of concepts to kids, and it’s different for each age group. It’s more than a paint job to shape that space with messaging and have success.

Students need us to help protect them by setting boundaries with adult supervision that is kind, honors privacy, but protects their need for safe and clean spaces. And when it comes to “decorating” or messaging we should involve students. 

You could begin by having students create the artwork on campus walls, including the bathrooms. It’s easy to complain about tagging and look at it as a sign of urban decay. Tagging is often a misunderstood art. Many so-called taggers are graffiti artists who can create large mural pieces. There are a couple examples of student artwork on the campus walls now. Perhaps this student artwork program could be revitalized and used to celebrate and showcase talents and aspirations. We have many talented students on campus who produce all kinds of visual art. To just be in the bathrooms might be a sign of disrespect – my artwork is just worthy of bathrooms? As part of a bigger project, student artwork on the walls within the school community, including the bathrooms, might have more success. 

But the bathrooms provide a greater opportunity than even that. The great American educator and philosopher, John Dewey maintained that for children to truly learn, they must interact with their environment. Learning isn’t a passive act in which students are vessels where we deposit information. Students grow the most when actively wrestling with ideas and problem solving in order to learn. Dewey believed that “education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.” So, what if, instead of posters which we hope will inspire our kids, we get down and dirty in those bathrooms and start having students solve the problems? This article from the Harvard School of Education speaks to that potential. 

But if that’s too ambitious, then let me suggest this as a start. . . clean the bathrooms. Paint them. Fix them. And find ways to monitor them so kids feel safe and that their privacy is still intact. Ask them how that might look and work. But let kids teach us what voices and words move and inspire them and go from there when we decorate the walls. Or let’s not be shocked, dismayed, and critical when our hard work goes unappreciated or even gets undone. It’s not a justification. It’s an attempt at an explanation.

We would all like to imagine pleasant, inviting, well-kept high school bathrooms. And no one feels good donating time and effort and feeling negativity in response. It’s an opportunity for us all to grow, though. That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet. And a bathroom? Well . . . Bart Simpson might have it right: this seems more like a stench blossom.

These are not easy fixes. 

Every accomplishment starts with a decision to try!

1 comment

  1. Spot-on. I pointed out the inherent fruitlessness of dressing up bathrooms that would still be the site of various shades of awful. The opposing viewpoint was…less than appreciative. The PTSA must become a more prominent voice in addressing the issues currently plaguing CCUSD, but their official position is that anything other than fundraising or activity announcements would be political and therefore a non-starter.

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