That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose.
– J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
It took about eight years, but it finally happened. Someone wrote fuck you on a desk in my classroom. I noticed it first back in January, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
It sounds crazy, but this is really the first time someone vandalized my classroom. Kids had drawn on my tables before. Eager but respectful young graffiti artists tagged using erasers, leaving a subtle, matted mark on the black Formica tabletops. Bored students wrote their names or drew shapes in pencil. Nobody had ever written fuck you.
I know teachers who have had students scream fuck you at them and then been threatened with unspeakable violence, teachers who’ve had their classroom’s desks hurled out windows in a rage. And yet here I am, quivering over a scratch.
It was pretty heartbreaking. I thought it was my fault. If a student is writing fuck you on the table, then that must reflect a short-coming of my own. The students must not be engaged at the level they once were. I must have officially aged out of relevance and beyond reverence. I had better hang it up and go into real estate. I once thought my classroom was a nice and peaceful place and now, well, fuck me, right?
Still, I had to ask if this slur was even directed towards me. The tables in my room are arranged in a square to encourage discussion. I sit among my students almost every class, usually in the same place. But the room is frequently rearranged for various activities, so the tables rotate randomly. Yet the fuck you always finds me. In the morning when my heart wasn’t in the lesson, or in the afternoon when the copier broke down: fuck you. It felt cosmically directed at me at the very least.
I thought about it way too much.
It’s not an ordinary fuck you. There’s a lot to like about this piece. First, it’s carved. Not pencil, not eraser, this fuck you is here to stay. The artist clearly meant for this to be seen, by me, by God, by anyone. If you’re going to write fuck you on something, you might as well dig the letters so deep nobody can erase them.
There’s a paradox though: this carving artist did not actually write fuck you. They wrote “f*ck u.” So the artist can’t be someone who sought a permanent swear. This is self-censored, hesitant vandalism aka legit art. This piece has a heart and is playful. Check the eye for detail: the “u” is not in the word fuck but instead placed below the substituted asterisk. So they have technically written fuck, and technically written fuck you, but without having actually written either. It’s almost as if this were an exercise in typography and not the soul-crushing exclamation that I took it to be.
Still, for the month of February, without fail, I would sit down full of hot teacher sauce prepared to fire up a kick-ass discussion only to look down and see it: f*ck u.
One morning I noticed the fuck you was scratched up. I understood this as a declamation by another student, a hero who decided enough was enough, and scratched out the vulgarity as if to say to the original vagrant: no, sir, fuck you! I started to wonder if maybe I had allies in the classroom after all.
It has taken me until this morning, when I once again unwittingly sat at the fuck you seat, to begin to see some actual good in this.
I finished reading The Catcher in the Rye with one of my classes in December. You might recall this is the novel where Holden Caulfield laments the state of the world, his decisions and their repercussions, and his lack of control. One of the climactic scenes is when Holden visits his sister Phoebe’s school and he sees the words Fuck you written in the hallway. He’s shattered by it; it is in some ways the splash following his novel-long fall.
And so, as we move towards the end of the school year, every time I sit down and read Fuck You, I’m going to tell myself this:
This is allusive, literary graffiti. It turns out, I have exceedingly brilliant students, meta-critics who know how to play art against expectation to make a profound statement. This is inspired work, thoughtful and impressive. From now on, every time I see this work, I will think, heroically, yes, fuck you, too.