When Chalking Became a Verb

January 11, 2013


The weapon of choice.Chalking: the use of chalk to express celebratory or ideological ideas on the bricks, cement, and other surfaces in a public area.

I was there when and where the trend and use of the term “chalking” started on the Western Washington University campus. The story might amuse you, so here it goes.

The concept of using the walk-ways of a campus as a canvas for chalked messages was not always so ubiquitous as it seems now. Oh there was the occasional chalk art screever or other lone wolf leaving an image or message now and then, but not the organized exhibitions by college clubs that are now a common routine all across America and around the world. My take is that it started at WWU, and it started with the WWU Pagans club.

It was shortly after midnight, May 1, 1998. I and some of the other astronomers and physicists were working on research projects in Bond Hall, aka Bondage Hall. A physics program has a way of keeping students so very busy that you sometimes forget what is on the other side of that sign that says “EXIT.” A few of us stepped out onto Red Square for some air, and some cold pizza and caffeine, our typical attempt at midterm nutrition.

PAST: Pagans And Students TogetherWe discovered there were several members of the WWU Pagans club who were wandering about Red Square employing an innovative idea. Borrowing some chalk from nearby classrooms, they were decorating the whole of the square with sayings and illustrations in celebration of May Day. It was all quite positive stuff really, you know, Mother Earth, Blessed Be, that sort of thing. So far so good, but then the communists showed up.

The communists also had an Associated Students club. It wasn’t a very big club. During the 90’s the Soviet Union had just collapsed, the Berlin Wall had come down; China was even privatizing sectors of their economy. Most people the world over had the notion that good old Bolshevik Communism was a failed and miserable experiment. Nevertheless, four young Stalwarts of Stalin arrived in “Red” Square in celebration of their idea of a May Day, i.e. the annual anniversary of the original Bolshevik Revolution.

With communism if you own two cows they shoot one as a warning, milk the other, and give half the milk to your neighbor. With capitalism, you sell one cow and buy a bull. Screw the neighbors. Pour half the milk down the sewer to keep prices up.I have nothing against the Communist Club. I believe that college is the perfect place for young people to sort out their worldviews in the environment of a very rich and diverse marketplace of ideas. Sometimes you don’t really know what it is you truly believe until someone says something against it and you are compelled to articulate a worthy defense, or go down trying. So let your freak flag fly.

Seeing the genius of the pagan’s tactic, the communists relieved more classrooms of their chalk, and began to add their own decorations to the bricks. To be honest, unlike the pagan stuff it lacked wit and charm. It was mostly negative, e.g. things like “Capitalist Pigs Suck” and so on. That was my straight forward observation with an admission of bias. My sympathies clearly lay with the pagans.

Although creative, this was all fairly mundane activity up to this point from our spectator’s point of view as physics geeks. But then it started to get more interesting. The “chalkings” of the two groups were beginning to overlap as they competed for the scarce resource of brick canvas. The pagans, apparently concerned about the conceived authorship of the various mixtures of slogans, began to draw borders around their own creations, and tag them with a distinctive WWU PAGANS moniker. No confusion there. The vocal component of the competition began to heat up as well, but was otherwise pretty civil. It didn’t seem like it was going to get physical or anything. Besides, the communists were outnumbered by about 2 to 1 by the pagans.

Enter my buddy Kameron, arriving from the physics labs and assessing the situation. Kameron has rather strong points of view on the virtues of capitalism over communism and began to attempt to education the communists on the error of their ways. Suddenly, emerging from the basement of Bond Hall, Dennis appeared with a large bucket of soapy water.

I'd like to help you out. Which way did you come in?Dennis was the janitor of Bond Hall in those days. He has since passed away, at a fairly young age, but in the context of the story he was a friend of the physics department. We spent many all-nighters in Bond and it is always a benefit to be on good terms with a janitor. They have keys, they have tools, and I sure can digress can’t I? Anyway, Dennis had views about communism that were at least as strong as Kameron’s, but he used less subtle forms of expression. He had been watching from the doorway and decided to help the communists “clean up” their act by removing some of the chalkmarks from the square. The communists tried to intervene and protect their handiwork and Dennis wound up soaking the actual communists more than the slogans on the bricks.

So finally our little break was starting to get down right entertaining. Kameron continued his rant, the pagans kept focused on “chalking” their blessings, and Dennis went to get more water! By the time he got back campus security had arrived. The cops made it clear to Dennis that his cleaning duties were to be confined to inside the building only. He argued that dowsing the students was an accident but even so I thought the cops were going pretty easy on him.

As for the rest of the crime scene, to their credit the officers realized that freedom of expression carried a certain amount of weight so they elected not to stop the minor vandalism of stealing chalk and marking up the square. They even allowed Kameron to continue carrying on making his adorable little speeches on macroeconomics. The cops made it clear that they didn’t have a set policy about this form of expression and they didn’t want to set one on the spot. But in the interest of peace, they invented a temporary ad hoc policy for the night. The pagans were to keep their celebratory “chalking” on the half of the square towards Haggard Hall and the communists had political reign over the half towards Miller Hall.

The chalking of Red Square that night, especially by the pagans, was no small effort. I’ve been part of this campus (man and boy) since 1977 and I had never witnessed anything quite like it before. Pretty much the whole of the square was decorated. As I said before, it was positive messaging on the part of the pagans and nothing was damaged or defaced in any permanent way. Things might have settled down right there once and for all, but that is not the end of the story. As classes began a few hours later that Friday morning in May, the rest of the student body witnessed the spectacle and there was a ripple effect. A much bigger confrontation and religiously (think Christian) charged controversy was to follow.

The Rest of the Story

All day Friday, Western students had their opportunity to study the May Day artifacts, pagan and communist, although some of the later had been rinsed unintelligible by our well-meaning custodian friend. Over the weekend other janitorial staff hosed the whole thing away, but the word was out. The new word was “chalking” and everyone knew how this game was to be played.

The purpose of life is the investigation of the Sun, the Moon, and the heavens. ~ Anaxagoras 459 BCEScheduled for the following weekend was the annual Western Family Weekend when hundreds of folks come to visit campus for the first time. Most of these people are high school kids and their parents, comparing potential schools and excitingly plotting their academic futures. Fresh flowers had been planted in the planters, the fountain was scrubbed clean, and the whole square was spiffed up pretty.

Monday morning must have been a bit of a shock to the college president, deans, and other administrators bent on putting their best foot forward for the upcoming family weekend. It was the Gay and Lesbian club that had chalked next, chalking for equality and acceptance. Good for them and let me interject here that all these years later it is an outrage that America is still having this stupid debate about whether we should treat one group of people the way decent caring people should treat decent caring people. After all our history of discrimination; against Indians, against Blacks, the Irish, and on and on, and I’m not sure gays are even really a group. They are more like a percentage of EVERY group! So let’s just stop all this primitive nonsense right now and face the fact that there is no “them” and “us” here. There is just us here.

What Would Jesus Chalk?Sorry about that but it relates to what happened next which was damned ugly. The Campus Christians took over the chalking for the next couple of days. All of their remarks were anti-gay and extreme. I don’t mean it was borderline hate speech, this stuff was clearly hate speech, very vulgar, and everyone knew it. The gays tried to chalk-fight a decent defense but they just didn’t have the numbers to take on the Campus Christians.

As the war escalated, random haters added to the anti-gay effort and a couple of new factors made it even worse. The chalking moved from being only under foot on the horizontal bricks, to being vertical. I mean it was all over the outside walls of the buildings surrounding the square. Then it moved indoors. It was in the classrooms and the hallways. It covered not only the chalkboards but the painted surfaces and they are hard to clean, just ask Dennis oh sorry he’s dead. Much of the vulgarity was about what the Christian’s merciful god has in store for the gays when the day comes for them to join Dennis.

Then about mid-week we suddenly ran out of chalk. The classrooms were picked clean and teachers began hording what little was left in their offices. I’ll never forget Dr. Stewart showing up for class, looking around, and asking loudly in a mystified tone “Where is the fucking chalk?”

Red Square was cleaned one more time and security kept watch on the last days leading up to the big promotional weekend.

Worst Album EverA few days later WWU President Karen Morse took action. I think she had to. She had flyers posted on the kiosks and distributed to all of the campus clubs. She said that preserving free speech was too important to ignore so the official policy on chalking would come after a series of meetings. Things like this always generate lots of meetings. Meanwhile, to restore civility, all would-be “chalkers” must first get a chalking permit from the Associated Students office. The edict? A wedge-shaped section between the lamp posts on the side of the fountain by Haggard Hall would be permitted for celebratory chalking, and a wedge of ground on the Bond Hall side would be reserved for ideological chalking. I imagine this compartmentalizing must have been in anticipation of another collision of purpose like the May Day celebration that lit the original fuse. This geographical partitioning left one whole side of the fountain, the most traveled side, free for unabated congestion-free foot traffic during any major chalking event.

I don’t know what the official policy on chalking is at WWU today. Perhaps they don’t enforce it much, as long as it doesn’t start getting out of control like it did back then during The Great Chalking War of ’98. Maybe the Christians are now willing to consider gays and straights being allowed to drink from the same water fountains. The college can always fall back on the rules if needed I suppose.

Strict rules naturally take some of the fun out of it. It is hard to feel like a true rebel when you have a permit. But when that notice first came around about the permits, I decided to test the system. I went down to the AS office and asked for a chalking permit application. They brought out the form, and congratulated me on being the very first person to apply. That’s right, yours truly, certified rebel, firebrand class.

They quizzed me: celebration or politics? Answer: celebration.
Question 2: What’s the occasion? Answer: Einstein’s birthday.

Things should be made as simple as possible but not simpler. ~ Albert EinsteinActually Einstein’s birthday was back on March 14th but I was pretty sure they wouldn’t know that. Besides, who cares? First Amendment cough cough. They awarded me a two-day chalking permit and a description of our area; a trapezoid between four lamp posts by Haggard Hall. A coiled hose was attached to a spigot coming out of Haggard by the custodial staff for subsequent cleanup. We were required to remove our work after so many days, I forget how many, a couple beyond the actual event I think. In Bellingham the rain usually takes care of it.

I mustered up a few of the physics geeks, added a couple of computer geeks, and topped it off with some math geeks. As students passed by on a sunny day in May, we chalked famous equations, some quotes by long dead brainiacs, and some math jokes. Example: what do you get when you take the integral of one over cabin? Answer: log cabin. HA HA HA, oh my side, it hurts.

So there you have it. Today most of the chalkboards on campus have been replaced by whiteboards. I thought you undergraduate whippersnappers might enjoy hearing about the escapades of your predecessors. I’m glad I blogged it before my memory of those days diverges too far from the truth. If nothing else, it serves to remind me that I never know what sort of fire young pagans are going to light next.
Blessed Be

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2 Comments on “When Chalking Became a Verb”

  1. Casey Says:

    Neat story, and I hate to bust your bubble, but chalking was already in vogue by clubs on my college campus (Oberlin) when I started there in 1995. I suspect it goes back even further than that.


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