The Mason Hall Bathroom Project

Mason Hall has played an important role in my four years as an English major at the University of Michigan. Every day I walk through the front doors and wiggle my way through the notorious traffic jam that occurs between class periods. As a freshman this was terrifying, but now as a senior, I’m confident in my ability to dodge all incoming objects—students, backpacks, and the occasional six-foot tall basketball player. In this building, I have taken writing courses that changed my life trajectory, studied artworks from 19th century France, and had lunch at the vending machines more times than I’d like to admit. I’ve never quite gotten used to the weird odor that plagues the narrow hallways, but as graduation quickly approaches, I have reached a place of acceptance for everything about this smelly old building. I’m going to miss it.

Since I spend a lot of time in Mason Hall, it’s only natural that I also frequent the first floor girls bathroom. This fact may seem insignificant to you, but those that have experienced this bathroom can attest—it is a fascinating site. Until this year, the tan-colored stalls were completely covered with graffiti. At first, it was simply entertaining to read. The walls were scattered with poems, pop culture references, ideas about the world, and many other sentiments you might imagine coming from the minds of girls in their 20s. Since freshman year, I have made a point to go to this specific bathroom, just so I could check out the new “posts.” My friend Ellie and I would often text each other about them, provoking in-depth conversations about which posts we related to and which posts we wanted to know more about. Over time, I began to realize that girls were not just drawing funny cartoons or trying to sell weed, they were using this bathroom as a physical chatroom. During one of the more private moments of their day, girls wrote to console one another through tough workloads, breakups, and mental health issues. I remember coming to this realization when I read a long paragraph detailing one girls struggle with depression and then seeing someone respond to that paragraph with their phone number, urging the author to call if she needed a friend.

When I returned to campus for my fourth and final year, I was distraught to see that the bathroom stalls had been painted dark brown—years of intimate thoughts and ideas completely erased. My first thought was that the individual responsible for the paint job had never bothered to read what we had written. I immediately knew that I had to do something to revive the conversation. My plan was simple, I was going to cover one of the stalls with paper and leave sharpies so that we could write again. I had no agenda for what I wanted people to write, I just had a feeling that there was a voice here that wanted to be heard.

On April 8th, I executed this plan alongside my friend Ellie, who not only physically helped me transform the stall, but also inspired me to see this project through. We weren’t sure if people were going to get it or if anyone was going to write, but we set up our experiment with enthusiasm anyways. We were anxious to see whether or not people shared our nostalgia for this lost bathroom-community. As it turned out, when we checked back around 8:30pm, there were stories inked in colorful Sharpie all over the walls. Some were silly and some were serious, but the interactions between posts showed the impact of simply providing a space for girls to anonymously think, read, and share.

It was strange that a community of bathroom-goers could feel so powerfully connected, but upon reflection, it was emblematic of a community of girls trying to navigate the world. We are in a time where privacy is rare, technology controls, women are fighting for their rights, students are drowning in debt, a recession is said to be on the horizon, and Notre-Dame is on fire. It makes sense that my generation needs a physical place to vent and help each other through the micro-challenges we face and the macro-tragedies that shape the world in which we live. I’m not sure what conclusions people have come to by writing on bathroom stalls, but I do know that people have come to understand that they’re not alone—no matter what they’re going through. My hope is that this understanding helps to unite girls of different backgrounds with unique stories and in some way make the world seem a little less daunting.

The next morning, on my way to an immersion journalism class, I went to see if the stall was still covered. It wasn’t. I expected to feel disappointed, but instead, I thought back to the little blue note that someone had written in the top corner that read, “Thank you for this.”

What the university calls vandalism—I call art. The creation of a language to represent the solidarity of Mason Hall’s first floor girls bathroom.