(This post incorporates two adjoining prompts from 365 Things to Write About.)
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” the community officer chanted impatiently, standing staunchly at the front of the bus and waiting for us to file past him into the dreary gray day that awaited us all outside.
Stepping from the bus, I looked around the barren streets, littered with dilapidated buildings marked with broken windows, peeling paint strips, missing bricks, and graffiti tags. Why the hell had they brought us here?
“All right, all right, step into a line,” the community officer ordered. “I want to see all of your shiny delinquent faces when I’m talking to you.”
As a dozen surly eyes stared at his lumpy face, he barked our daily service task. We were required to scrub and clean the graffiti tags from the walls of each building. The goal was five buildings in eight hours. If we didn’t get it done, we’d be doing it again tomorrow, and he’d be tacking on two more buildings.
“Any questions?” he asked in one of those tones that wasn’t really asking, but I raised my hand anyway.
“Why are we cleaning it up here? There’s no one living or working in this part of town. Why wouldn’t we be cleaning this stuff off the buildings downtown or neighborhoods where people actually live?”
“Oh, so squatters don’t count as people?” the officer remarked sarcastically. “Didn’t realize you were such a snob about where you did your community service, Thomson. I’ll keep that in mind for future assignments. Now stop your griping and get to work.”
The lot of us trudged with buckets, brushes, and paint cans toward boarded-up warehouses across the street. Plunking long, bristled brushes into soapy waters, we set to work scrubbing fresh and faded tags from the exterior walls while our fearless leader plopped his fat butt into a chair and pulled out his phone to play a round of Angry Birds. I caught him playing the game that morning when I reported to my daily service, but I doubted he wanted me to know his secret obsession.
“This sucks,” complained a girl with stringy blonde hair and multiple piercings in her left ear. “This stuff is so caked on. Soap and water is never going to get it off.”
“There’s no way we’re going to finish five of these buildings today. They’re too massive,” a short, stocky boy groaned as he tiredly wiped over bricks tagged in bright orange paint.
I wondered what had brought them to community service, but didn’t ask. No one ever asked in this group. Maybe they just didn’t care enough to know. Me, I’d been hanging with the wrong crowd after school. Trying to be cool and fit in. All that got me was community service after the group of kids tried to steal snacks and soda pop from the convenience store near one of the kid’s homes. I wasn’t even with them when they did it, but I was rounded up with them and the spoils when the police arrived an hour later. Turns out a neighbor saw the whole thing go down but couldn’t recall which kids were there and which weren’t.
“There were many of them,” was all she’d said to the judge when the group of us appeared in court.
And my so-called friends hadn’t bothered to point out I wasn’t at the scene of the crime. Didn’t say anything at all. Some friends.
Most of them had previous records, so they got the harsher sentences. And I was gifted 150 hours of community service. My mother called it a gift, not me. I called it a curse. But she thought it might teach me a lesson and straighten me out.
“Whoa! Check this out!” a kid exclaimed from down the street, pointing to the next building we’d be tackling with brushes, soap, and paint.
I followed the other kids to a patch of wall where a little girl in a sundress had been painted on it. In one hand, she held a floating balloon that resembled a peace sign. In her other hand, she held up a speck of something between her thumb and forefinger.
“What is that she’s holding?” the stringy blonde squeaked, squinting her eyes and leaning close to get a better look. “Is she holding up a speck of dirt?”
“I think it’s meant to be a grain of sand,” I answered. “That’s what the ground around her looks like, anyway.”
Beside the girl, we read a quote scrawled across the bottom part of the wall. Happiness always looks small while you hold it in your hands, but let it go, and you learn at once how big and precious it is. – Maxim Gorky
“Who’s Maxim Gorky?” the stocky boy asked.
We all shrugged at each other. No one knew. But the impact of those words with that innocent image hit us all the same. All of us agreed this picture wasn’t really graffiti. It was something else – something more like art.
“I don’t want to get rid of it,” one kid admitted.
“Neither do I,” confessed another.
We shuffled past the girl on the wall to tackle the spray-painted tags on the rest of the buildings in our row. Eight hours later, our arms and necks ached from standing and scrubbing, crouching and scrubbing, kneeling and scrubbing. No matter how we stood, we’d done a lot of scrubbing, and we somehow managed to erase a good deal of graffiti on our allotted five buildings.
As we tiredly followed our community officer down the street while he inspected our labors, I noticed him stop suddenly in front of the painted girl.
“What’s this?” he snarled. “”Doesn’t look like you even touched it!”
No one spoke. Some of the kids looked down, pretending not to hear his angry question.
“It’s not graffiti, sir,” I explained. “Some of us thought it should stay on the wall.”
“Oh! So now you can differentiate between tags and art, Thomson?” the officer barked. “I don’t see a museum around these parts of town. I see a bunch of delinquents and a wall with vandalism! And none of you are leaving this block until it’s gone!”
“You can’t do that, sir. Our parents are waiting for us at the center. We did our eight hours today. We have to go home now,” I cautiously pointed out.
“Well, I hope you’re ready for more of the same tomorrow because all of you will be scrubbing another eight buildings on this row,” he ordered. “And your first job will be to finish cleaning up this wall!”
“I’m not touching that wall,” I heard myself say aloud without really meaning to. Or maybe I did.
The community officer glared at me.
I pointed toward the wall.
“Sir, this painting reflects on the good and happiness that we should all be seeking in our lives. It’s telling us that we can find peace in the smallest of things, maybe even ourselves. It made all of us here think for a moment about ourselves and where we are right now. In my opinion, that is art, not graffiti. And why would you want us to destroy the only thing on this block that made us consider embracing peace in our lives today? Isn’t that what community service is supposed to teach us?”
The community office said nothing, taking a moment for his chubby face to absorb a fifteen-year-old’s perspective on the situation, something I could tell he wasn’t proud to be doing.
The stocky boy raised his hand.
“I’d like to keep the painting on the wall, sir,” he announced bravely.
A couple other kids nodded and added, “Me, too.”
The stringy blonde offered, “We won’t tell anyone you allowed us to keep it up. But please don’t make us erase it.”
To my surprise, more kids chimed in, promising not to say a word about the mural if he’d let us leave the girl with a peace balloon and grain of sand where she rightfully belonged.
“Oh, fine,” the officer sighed and threw his hands to his sides. “You don’t have to get rid of this thing but you will be scrubbing five more buildings across the street first thing tomorrow morning.”
We consented agreeably as he marched past us toward the bus that waited to take everyone home. Trailing behind the group of delinquents, I turned to glance at the small girl on the wall and then smiled, thinking to myself, “All it took was you and a grain of sand.”
– Written by Miss A on January 4th & 5th, 2012