"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A dark, ugly genre

Anonymous note left in restroom stall
This Reddit / Yahoo news article about a poignant note left in a women's restroom inspired me to write this week's blog post about literacy genre.  I hope I'm not being too crude writing about women's restrooms, but literacy is happening in there.  I have seen it, read it, and felt it.   When I look at this unlikely genre through the lens of social practice theory, I see powerful text that has even deeper meaning because of its setting.  In Reading Work (Belfiore et al., 2004) Judy Hunter describes literacy as a social practice where people create special meanings from text connected to a particular social setting.  Hunter adds that literacy is more than words on the page, it is the meaning of words and their use.  Literacy is "activities around texts that involve values, attitudes, feelings and social relationships" (p. 247).  Literacy activity in the restroom is discourse between women who scratch and scribe crude messages of abuse, addiction, and depression on the walls for others to read.  Maybe this is the only place where ugly truths can surface; maybe this is the only place dark secrets can be put into words.  Maybe this is a place where we must face ourselves, literally and metaphorically.   Sometimes, a sympathetic response is added to the discourse, other times a nasty, cruel jab is penned alongside.   There is a darker, private understanding of these awful words: they aren't fit for any other place.  Their meaning is entwined with the social setting.  If taken out of context, these messages would probably be described as rude defacement of property.  When we learn where they were written, it can change how we feel about them.  Maybe we understand, maybe we were part of this discourse at one point, too.

It is because this note was found in a restroom stall that it caught my attention.  If it were taken out of the restroom--out of its genre--its deeper meaning would be lost.  Yes, the note is a worthy gesture of humanity in and of itself, however, its meaning becomes more profound when put into its literacy genre.  The meaning goes beyond words on the paper.  This note is an answer, a response to cries for help.  It is one piece of a larger literacy activity found in a genre of dark secrets and ugly truths. 

I will close with the words from the note
To the girl who was raped: You are so strong. I cannot fathom the pain you must have gone through. The fact that you have the bravery to write it (even on a bathroom wall) gives me hope.
To the girl with eating disorders: I promise you, although I don't know you, you are beautiful, you deserve your health. You deserve freedom from that hell.
To the girl with the alcoholic father: I am so sorry for the agony it must cause. Again, such courage is remarkable you must be such a strong person to see such pain.
To the girl whose father died: Missing them never goes away. The ache of their absence never goes away. But the love they had, the memories you share surely must last. I am sure, out of the bottom of my heart, the people who have left you in this world are exceptionally proud of the person you are.
Everytime (sic) I see these walls, these confessions, I feel so blessed to know I have the priviledge (sic) of seeing them. Your moments, these secrets, are all precious even though they are sad. To all of you (including those I did not mention, and those who have not yet written)
-You are worthy.
-You are strong.
-You are brave.
-You are loved.
-Somebody cares.
Written below that, somebody penned a quick response: "To the person who wrote this, thank you."



  1. Susan, this is, in addition to a provocative post, a model for our class as we begin blogging on generative themes. Your writing has disclosed a new perspective on bathroom literacy practice: how certain spaces evoke certain practices. There is a theory called "3rd-Space" that addresses the way individuals take over a space and make it there own(think: subversives using public media to voice revolutionary ideas.) But here, you've raised a different idea: how space acts as the catalyst: What is it about bathroomwalls that evoke and so poignantly frame speech acts?

  2. Susan, while reading your post I found myself thinking about another of our "generative words/phrases" - disclosing vs. fixing. I am reminded of the importance of disclosing or revealing our secrets or our experiences. We have to make meaning of our realities. One cannot just say "put it behind you", "it's over now", or "it wasn't your fault" - or any of the many other things that might be spoken (or written) to "fix" the problems. Getting to the disclosing part is such a challenge. It is so much easier to assume we know what is needed (I go back to Folinsbee (ch.2) here as she "saw" that managers attempt to fix problems of documentation and other literacy practices didn't even began to understand the problems of the workers.)Do we consider the ability to "hear" as a literacy skill? Sometimes I wonder...

  3. Hi Susan, I like our post because it is very different from what I expected when I read the title. Honesty, the poems you saw in the restroom seems to be beautiful and comforting, it is almost the opposite of the kind of restroom genre I noticed before. As I know, the restroom literacy is usually meaningless. It could be silly questions of some ridiculous topic. In China, what is on restroom's walls are usually advertisements, especially for illegal services, such as personal detective or devices to help students cheating in exams. In the contrary, the piece you posted, to me, seems to belong to a girl's diary, or a magazine for teenager girls.
    Since you mentioned the environment, I cannot help wondering if it is the mismatch of the genre and the environment that attracted your attention. This is just my humble guess, and I know you may feel the totally different way. But I just find it interesting to appear in the restroom.


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.