Normally, I would never do something like this. It’s vandalism. It’s defacing school property. It’s wrong and I know it. But surely there’s some kind of exception for activism. Maybe. Probably not. Maybe I’ll do it anyway. Maybe I’m that kind of person now that I’m fire-belly angry. The bathroom door is already covered in so many scribblings, no one would notice if I added to it. And I’m not going to add something obscene like the writing that’s already here. I have to make my mind up soon or Ms George will send someone to look for me. I've been in here for ages. Normally, when the slurs and the homophobic jokes get too much I only spend a few minutes in the bathroom, deep breathing and composing myself. But today is different. Today, I have absolutely no desire to go back into that classroom. I don't actually think Ms George would care if I stayed in here for the rest of the period. One less student to teach. And I don’t think she’d listen to me about the kids at the back of the class, because the insults aren’t directed at me. Picking on gay people is different to picking on the gay kid. Teachers don’t have as much motivation to help unless there’s a specific target.
I turn back to the wall. I'm going to do it. I take the pen out of my pocket and find a tiny blank spot on the plaster. I write 'Happy Pride Month' in letters that don't look too much like my regular handwriting. Writing on a wall is harder than it seems and it takes a lot of effort to make the letters readable. I leave the bathroom a little lighter, which I guess is strange considering all I’ve done is write one little phrase. But it feels so much bigger than those three little words. I sit through the rest of the lesson, trying to ignore the words coming from the back of the room. I hope someone in another class is hearing the same things. I hope they'll see what I wrote and feel a little bit better. I hope they’ll leave a reply. Maybe this could be a start. Maybe this could lead to something.
I feel like I'm floating a little all day. Is that weird? That the tiniest bit of graffiti, breaking a minor rule, gets me this excited? Probably. But as my mum would say, "As long as you’re happy and not getting arrested, who cares?" I doubt you can be arrested for bathroom graffiti. If you could, we'd have way more students with criminal records.
Leo and Maxie are at our lunch spot when I get there and I must be smiling more than I think because Leo looks up at me and says, "Why're you so chipper? Did Ms George have spinach in her teeth again?"
"Something like that," I say as I sit next to him on the wooden bench. And I'm not sure why, but I don't want to tell Leo and Maxie about the graffiti. Partly because Leo will make some stupid joke about it. And partly because Maxie will be super surprised that I’ve broken an actual school rule. But mostly I don’t want to tell them because it seems too private. Like a secret between me and whoever else writes on that wall. Leo starts telling a story about something that happened in his cooking class and I nod along, my mouth too full of sandwich to say anything. I watch and listen quietly as his long arms flail around excitedly as he tells me about an icing sugar incident. He grips his dark curly hair in annoyance as he tells me about how the fire alarm went off again because someone forgot to set an oven timer. His eyes light up when Maxie laughs at his jokes. Watching Leo tell stories is like watching a stand-up comedian who only talks about cooking and basketball.
I finish eating and sit with my feet on the bench and my head on my knees. I zone out a little as Maxie and Leo start talking about one of their teachers and it takes me a second to realise that I’m staring at a girl across the courtyard. She has this Nutella coloured hair in longs braids and strong legs in tight jeans and the kind of thick eyeliner that makes her stare intense even from fifteen metres away. An intense stare that is aimed at me. I blush and look away quickly, angling my body toward Leo and Maxie to make it seem like that’s where all my energy is going. I steal another glance at her and she smiles at me before turning back to her friends.
“Hey, Maxie,” I say as soon as there’s a gap in conversation.
“Yeah?” she says.
“Do you know who that girl is?” I point to the staring girl.
“Umm.” She clicks her tongue pushes strands of raven blue hair out of her face as she squints at the girl. “Hazel? Yes! I think her name’s Hazel.”
“Is she new?” I ask.
“Nope,” Maxie says. “You probably just don’t know her because she’s not in the band.”
“We know people who aren’t in the band!” Leo says. “We know you, don’t we?”
“I don’t count!” Maxie laughs. “I was in the band when you met me!”
“Yeah, but you only played percussion.”
I steal another glance at the girl as Maxie and Leo start arguing about whether band kids are the least social kind of kids at our school. Hazel is saying something quickly and with a lot of hand movements. Her friends burst out laughing and she looks over at me. I blush again and look away. Maxie catches a glimpse of my red face and grins.
“Oh my god!” Maxie says, her eyes wide and excited, her hands flapping with energy. “You like her, don’t you Nell?”
“What?” I say. “No I don’t.”
“Of course you don’t,” Maxie smiles, sitting back, cocking her head to the side. “How stupid of me to think such a thing. You’re just very, very warm?”
“Shut up,” I say into legs, cheeks still burning.
The next day, I'm at school too early because mum is worried about the traffic. This happens far too often. As soon as there's more than a five percent chance of rain on the forecast, mum gets all worked up about how bad the traffic will be. So she's insisted on dropping me off twenty minutes before school starts and I'm one of the only students here. Again. Maxie won't be here until after class has already started and I can't see Leo anywhere yet, so I decide to check on the graffiti. Because I'm acting super nonchalant about the whole thing and I’m definitely not freaking out at the possibility that someone might have actually replied to my message. And I’m definitely not scared that one of the homophobic kids has read it and replied with their stupid comments. Nope. Not at all. I try to ignore my bubbling nerves as I open the bathroom door. I lock the stall door behind me and lean on it. Taking a slow, deep breath, I allow myself to look.
There's a response.
Actually, there are two responses. Sort of. Someone has angrily scribbled out my whole message in blue biro, leaving dents in the wall. The same person has written, ‘NO’ in scratchy letters next to it. The second response is just little purple hearts drawn all around the message. They must have been there before the blue biro scribbler because some of the hearts have been scribbled out too.
So maybe I’m getting a little addicted to this. Maybe this graffiti is giving me strange rushes of adrenaline and courage because I take out my pen and write, "What's your problem, scribbler?" So I guess I’ve started an argument. Which is unlike me. Usually it’s Leo and Maxie who are the ones standing up to people and voicing their opinions and I just quietly let everyone else state their points. But now that I've had a reply, now that I know there are at least two people who've read and reacted to the message, I want to keep going. I want to know who these people are. Who's the scribbler? Who drew the hearts? I want them to know my opinion and I want to change things in this school.
All morning, the graffiti is all I can think about. It's eating away at my brain and my attention span. My French teacher, who is probably the nicest teacher in the entire world, notices and comes to check on me.
"Nell," she says, eyebrows furrowed into a concerned expression. "Ça va? Are you okay?"
"Oui, Mademoiselle. I'm fine."
But I can tell she doesn’t believe me because she says, “Do you need to go outside for a bit?”
I nod and leave the room. I feel a little bad for not telling Mademoiselle Katie about the graffiti, but I don’t think I’m comfortable with her knowing. I don’t want to tell her that there's someone in this school with a biro and so much disdain for queer people that they’d scribble out some harmless graffiti. And I don’t want to tell her that I graffitied school property. I don't think she'd be too impressed by that. And I'm certainly not going to tell her that I'm hoping that the girl who drew the purple hearts is queer and cute and willing to talk to me outside the bathroom wall. And I don't tell her how comforting that would be, to know that Maxie and I aren't the only two queer girls in the whole school.
When I reach the bathroom, the end stall is empty and there’s a new reply from the Scribbler that reads, "You shouldn't be proud of something that isn't natural.”
I clench my jaw. I don't know how to respond to that. Thankfully, the purple pen of the heart drawer has responded for me. "This isn't an organic food shop, this is life. What's 'natural' or not doesn't matter. We shouldn't have to hide from people like you." The comment makes me smile and I take my pen out to write, "Thank you person," and draw an arrow to the purple comment.
It's warmed up nicely by recess and Leo and Maxie and I sit backwards on the bench, our backs to the sun, feet in the garden, soaking up the warmth. Maxie's talking superhumanly fast and she seems to think that what she's saying is important but Leo and I can't understand any of it.
Eventually, Maxie takes a breath. "Don't you think that's just ridiculous?" she says, which is the first sentence that I've been able to decipher for about five minutes. She looks to us expectantly, her eyes bright and waiting.
"Yes," Leo says. "I've got no idea what you're talking about but, yes, it's probably ridiculous."
Maxie rolls her eyes and leans forward to look at me. “Nell! Did you hear what I said?”
“Hearing and listening are two different things,” I say because I definitely heard what she said but she didn’t make it easy to comprehend.
Maxie sighs. “Your loss,” she shrugs. “You’ll just have to live with the fact that you’ll never know.”
“What a pity,” Leo sighs, feigning disappointment. She frowns and pokes his arm. I tune out of their conversation and my gaze floats across the yard. Hazel and her friends are sitting in a doorway. Hazel’s legs are curled up under her and her hair is out and flowing down her back. She’s kind of hypnotic.
“Oi!” Leo laughs, poking my arm. “What’re you looking at?”
I bite my lip. “Nothing.”
He pokes me again. “Tell me!” he says, poking with both hands. I laugh and push his hands away.
Maxie perks up. “Is it that girl?” she asks, drumming her hands on her knees.
“No.” I say quickly, trying so hard not to blush.
“Nell,” Maxie says seriously, stopping her drum rolling hands. “You have to go talk to her.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
“You’re blushing,” Leo smirks. “You want to.”
“Go!” Maxie says, gesturing wildly. I glance over at Hazel. I could. I could so easily go over there and talk to her. It’s only a few metres and a few words and then…
The bell goes and Maxie groans. “You’re not getting out of this that easily,” she warns me as we walk to our classes.
As soon as the bell goes for lunch, I head to the bathroom to check on the graffiti. I know it's kind of sad that I'm obsessing over it so much, but I can't help it. I need to know if there's a reply. I need to know who the Scribbler is and who the heart drawer is. Plus, it's just dawned on me that I could use the graffiti as evidence of 'unacceptable language and behaviour' at school. I could show a teacher. I could actually change this.
But when I get to the bathroom, there's someone in the last stall. It could be the Scribbler. It could be love hearts girl. My heart races. I could know who they are! I turn on the tap and wash my hands slowly, waiting for the stall door to open so I can see who they are. And then, once they leave, I can see if they left a message. I realise that just washing my hands looks a bit suspicious, so I splash some water onto my coat and rub at it as if I've spilt something. The stall door opens and I try to look as subtly as I can at the girl. It's Hazel. She has one hand in the pocket of her denim jacket. She smiles at me – which makes my stomach flutter – washes her hands and leaves. I race to the stall. Thank god there's no one else in here to see me being so weird. There's a message from the Scribbler - some misspelt Bible quote - and a purple message from love heart girl. The purple message says, "Let's prove this kid wrong" with a phone number written next to it. My chest tightens. This is so strange. Why is there a number? Do they want me to text them? They don't even know who I am. I take a photo of the wall and another of the phone number then rub the purple numbers with my finger. It smudges perfectly. The ink's still wet. It was Hazel.
I race out of the bathroom to where Maxie and Leo are sitting. Hazel and her friends are sitting in the doorway again. Maxie looks up at me curiously.
"Why’re you in such a rush?” she asks.
I shrug, sit down next to her and pull out my phone, typing in the number from the graffiti.
“And where’s your lunch?” Maxie asks.
“Forgot it,” I say. I turn back to my phone and type, Purple hearts? This is the red-pen-Happy-Pride-Month girl. I press send.
Across the courtyard, Hazel's phone beeps. She looks down at it, grins and types something.
My phone buzzes and Maxie frowns at me.
“What is going on?” she asks, shaking her hands in my face.
I shrug and read the text, Thank god you're not Miss-blue-biro-and-angry-letters. Who are you? Can I talk to you? I look up from my screen and Hazel's standing right in front of me. She holds out her hand.
"I love your work," she says as I shake her hand.
"Yours is pretty neat too," I say.
"We should meet up sometime," she says. "Are you free after school?"
I can feel myself blushing. "Today?"
"Yeah. I'll meet you here when the bell goes?"
"It's a date then," she grins and now she's blushing too. “See you then.”
As she walks across the yard, Maxie’s fidgety, percussionist hands are drumming on my arm.
“Nell,” she says. “You have got to tell me what’s going on.”
I grin and tell her everything. As I talk, I glance back at Hazel. She grins at me, blushes and turns back to her friends. I was right, I think. Three little words did change something.