Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

English Quarterly

Writing on the Door

Kym Sheehy-Toole

Recently, I spent the evening at The Split Crow with friends. While using the washroom I began to read the graffiti on the back of the stall door. At the top of the door was a large message, in pen, which read

I am 37 years old. I am out at the bar. My husband abused me. I am a person. I love life. Don't let anyone do this to you.

A reply had been scrawled below

We must all stand together if we are to survive. I hope you walked. Stand tall. Be strong!

Further below this was another message responding again to the initial writing.

I was struck by two things as I read the writing on the door. The first was the pain I imagined the first woman must have been feeling as she stood there sharing her abuse with strangers. I wondered whether she had shared it with anyone she knew or in risking it with strangers she was, in fact, practicing how to say it first. The second thing that struck me was the whole femaleness of this writing and the obvious connection these women felt. I also felt a member of the group as if by reading their words I was drawn into their emotions and was sharing something that, generally, only women experience. The fact that this correspondence was located where men would not see it was also evidence of the bond among women who reach out to one another in times of need.

Several evenings later I related this story to a female friend. When I mentioned I had read something on a toilet door in a bar which really affected me, she interrupted, "Wait, I know what you're going to say," and continued by recounting the same words I had read. We spoke about the powerful effect this writing had had on us. She had read the message more than a month earlier and it had remained with her-a testament to the impact of this particular literacy event on our lives. We discussed how we felt about each of the women who had written on the door. We had strikingly similar reactions to each, neither of whom we had ever met.

This literacy incident had a powerful effect on me. I was left wondering what other examples of literacy might provoke such strong responses and what implications this has for classroom teachers. One issue this encounter highlighted was the risk involved when a person writes. The measure of risk surely impacts directly on the content of the writing. Obviously, there is enormous risk inherent in writing a message on the toilet door which allowed a woman to express such painful emotions in print, even anonymously. In our classrooms we must recognize the level of risk our students are experiencing, ensuring an environment that encourages and supports all kinds writing.

As teachers of writing, we understand the importance of purpose in the process. I recognized the compelling purpose of the women who wrote on the toilet door. How often in my classroom do children truly write for such real purposes, I was forced to ask myself. They perhaps choose what to write but do they ever have a compelling purpose to write or as Mem Fox (1987) puts it, to they " ache with caring" about their writing?

This incident also made me thing about audience. The women in the bathroom knew precisely who would read their messages-other women, strangers, yet sisters. Are my students as aware of their audience when they write? Do they even know that audiences other than teachers exist? by encouraging students to recognize a wider audience and permitting the children the power to select an audience I can do a great deal to shift ownership of the children's writing into their own hands.

Margaret Spencer (1987) has argued that the encounter with the printed page lets the reader read him/herself. The messages I read in the bathroom were a mirror for me to reflect on my own life experiences. Printed words let us know ourselves better. We reflect, compare, make contrasts and inferences as we transact with the text. I found myself having feelings of sympathy and compassion for the woman who wrote of her abuse and anger that women should experience abuse of any sort. As well, I felt warmly toward the women who responded. Unlike them, I realized my particular upbringing prevents me from writing my reactions on a toilet door. This text let me discover and reflect on some unexpected inhibitions in myself.

As teachers do we recognize the potential power print can have for children? We often ask students how a piece of writing makes them feel and why it makes them felt that way. We should also be asking students what that particular interaction with print tells them about themselves. Do we deliberately create situations were children are drawn into the message of the print the way I was drawn in as I read the writing on the door? And do we encourage children to make connections between the print and self in an effort to help them understand themselves better. If not, we are missing out on important opportunities to help children engage in meaningful way with authors' messages.

Fox, M. (1987) Notes from the battlefield: Towards a theory of why people write. A paper presented at the 5th Invitational Riverina Literacy Centre Conference.

Spencer M. (1987) Text in hand: Explorations in the networking of literacy and literature or new literacies, new texts, old teachers. A paper presented that the 5th Invitational Riverina Literacy Centre Conference.

Kym Sheehy-Toole teaches in Middleton, Nova Scotia.

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