Stall scrawl: the implications of an anonymous forum

RYAN STROTHER ‘17

Sports Editor

Stall scrawl. Those poorly drawn pictures and words scratched or penned into the toilet stall dividers are perhaps a universal part of higher education. For some reason, students have an affinity for writing down their thoughts in the place where they are most vulnerable.

At their best, stall writings fall into a number of categories: conversations, witty intellectual remarks, as well as attempts at irreverent humor.  One bathroom stall in Barney Davis Hall boasts a Latin phrase, Te occidere possunt sed te edere non possunt nefas est. The first time I saw this I was taking Latin 111. So, I took out my textbook and did my best to translate the phrase. It roughly came out to: “They can kill you, but they cannot eat you – it is against the law.”

I was enthralled. Not only had I successfully completed my first real-world Latin translation, but I also wanted to know both who it was that wrote that upon the stall wall, as well as who it was that came up with the phrase in the first place. As it turns out, it was the motto of the fictional Enfield Tennis Academy in David Foster Wallace’s novel, Infinite Jest. I can’t help but feel gratitude toward the transcriber, but his identity will remain anonymous.

Which leads me to the problem of stall scrawl. Public restrooms pose a dichotomy between privacy and publicity, creating an opportunity for a kind of public forum where one can write something privately and know that it will be seen publicly.

Alongside creativity, anonymity opens the door for the proliferation of some very negative comments. My first experience with such negativity occurred when I was ten years old, riding up to Finland, Minn on a school trip. A bathroom stall at a gas station on the way read, “Minnesota is white man’s land.” I was shocked – I had never thought of my hot-dish-and-hockey loving home state as a place that fosters racism.

But, as Roger Gregorie, who has been vocally anti-racist in Duluth, Minn. once said, “I tend to categorize racism as a kind of virus. It thrives in the darkness. The more you shine a sharp light on it, it is weakened.” At least one person (and very likely more) agreed with the hateful remark.

So it goes with misogyny. I’m happy to say that most of the stall scrawl on Denison’s campus is either clever, trying to be clever, or at the very least, harmless. But there are sporadic issues that come out in the “darkness” of the men’s rooms at Denison. Though rare, these include sweeping statements about sororities, attacks at individuals, and the occasional racist remark. Usually, these are removed promptly.

Nonetheless, every time this occurs it illuminates that at least one Denison student agrees with whatever sentiment is written on the wall. And that’s a big problem. While the spaces are private, they are still frequented by the public. Insofar as they function as a forum, what’s written on the walls is important.

That said, it’s always a sad day when the clever, good-natured scrawl gets painted over. The stall walls need not be boring. I’m all for stall scrawl, but if you’re picking up a pen when nature calls, be thoughtful. The bathroom stall is not as private a place as it might seem to be.