By: Nima Shirali
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As I walked past my old elementary school, the shattered beer bottles and loud screaming coming from a distance brought back childhood memories. I remembered my first day there as a new kid in the neighborhood. The new environment was intimidating and I had always disliked going to school. The school was still the same. The only thing that had changed was that there was more graffiti on the school’s dark brown brick walls.
As a child, I was taught to see graffiti as a bad thing. I was told it was “vandalism of school property” by “troubled kids”. I was constantly reminded not to associate with the kids who sprayed the walls. There was always a connection between graffiti and badness.
Every week, Officer Don, a tall man with a moustache and greying hair from the local police station would come to our class to remind us of what was good and what was bad. One week the topic would be shoplifting. Another week, lying to police. One thing he always talked about was the consequences of disobeying teachers.
When Officer Don would leave the class, a heavy silence would overtake the room. The short, voiceless glances between the kids communicated their instilled fear. We knew silence was what our teacher, Mrs. Twari, wanted. She seemed to get angry when the kids showed an innate impulse for playing and talking when they wanted. Officer Don’s presence would realize her desire for “Silence!”
And silent we became. We always reminded ourselves what Officer Don had done once. He always said he’d arrested his own son once for doing drugs. This made us want to listen to Mrs. Twari so she didn’t tell Officer Don on us.
One time in the sixth grade, they took us on a field trip. Mrs. Twari chatted with Officer Don while another officer gave us a tour of the 33 Division police station. When we got to the jail cells, the inmates began showing us the middle finger. They did it silently.
On the way back, the old yellow school bus was filled with a soundless stillness.
The similarity had provoked my thoughts that day. When I saw the jail cells, I noticed that the grey, concrete walls were covered with graffiti. The lively, explosive colors on the wall were a contrast to the lethargic, quiet inmate. The silence and the colorful display of free expression reminded me of the school walls. Officer Don said this was a sign that the same kids who painted the school walls ended up in jail. I thought it was the silencing of free voice that led to a colorful outbreak of anger.
As I walked past my old elementary school, the brown brick walls read, "in memory of...." What had not been sprayed was the school sign that read, "A Public School in Flemington Park".
Nima Shirali is Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Middle East Reconciliation Journal (MERJ), www.merecforum.org