Romano: A gesture of hope in a time of increased racism

Bryn Garick, Asiana Battle, Cassidy Gillis and Rachel Nasby posted hundreds of sticky notes with positive messages in a restroom at Oviedo High School to combat racist graffiti.
Bryn Garick, Asiana Battle, Cassidy Gillis and Rachel Nasby posted hundreds of sticky notes with positive messages in a restroom at Oviedo High School to combat racist graffiti.
Published Nov. 19, 2016

The handwriting looks playful, with small flourishes and a lopsided heart. There are the usual abbreviations of the smartphone generation, and the breezy manner of a teen.

The incomprehensible element is the message itself.

It's as if it were born of another era. Of a darker, more sinister America. A time when white privilege was handed down like a birthright, and hate-filled language seemed frightfully apropos.

And yet there it was this month on the wall of a girl's bathroom at an Orlando-area high school. It warned blacks to start picking out their slave numbers and was gleefully punctuated by "KKK 4 lyfe."

Below it, in larger letters, was a final thought:

"Go Trump 2016''

• • •

Donald Trump's blunt talk during the 2016 presidential campaign did not turn voters into racists, but you might argue it encouraged racism in ways not normally seen.

Across the country there have been reports of vandalism, intimidation and threats. Against blacks, Muslims, immigrants, gays and even the president-elect himself.

In St. Petersburg at a church with a predominantly LGBT congregation, a swastika, along with other Nazi-related symbols and a Trump slogan, was written in chalk on the driveway. In Hillsborough County, a vulgarity directed at Trump was spray-painted on the wall of a vacant mobile home. In Pasco County, a high school teacher allegedly — and perhaps jokingly — warned black students to get to class before Trump sent them to Africa.

And at Oviedo High, a well-regarded suburban school east of Orlando, students lit up Twitter and Snapchat with photos of racist graffiti discovered on the bathroom wall.

"I wasn't sure how to feel about it,'' said Asiana Battle, an African-American sophomore at the school. "Am I supposed to not care, or just get over it? I can't just ignore it, because it was a pretty ugly thing. But I didn't want to be afraid of it because I didn't want to give whoever wrote it any power over how I felt.''

At lunch the following day, a group of students was discussing the graffiti when someone mentioned the "subway therapy'' campaign in New York. Subway commuters have been writing uplifting messages on sticky notes and putting them on walls.

Bryn Garick, 15, asked her mother about Post-It notes as an answer to the graffiti, and got permission to invite friends to her house on Sunday to begin writing positive messages.

Some messages were song lyrics. Some were quotes. And some, in a nod to Trump's comments about women, encouraged girls to be proud of their bodies.

They debated whether to seek permission from administrators, and decided it would be better to ask for forgiveness afterward. So at 6:30 a.m. on Monday — 45 minutes before classes started — Garick, Battle, Cassidy Gillis and Rachel Nasby gathered in a girl's restroom and began decorating walls, mirrors and stalls with 400 colorful notes.

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It didn't take long for word to spread. Battle went in the restroom during second period and said it was jammed with students taking pictures. When Garick walked into an English class, a handful of students were telling the teacher about the notes.

The girls had done the work anonymously, but enough people knew of the plan that the word was going to spread.

"I knew it wasn't vandalism because the notes could just be taken down, but I was still a little nervous,'' Garick said. "I was afraid people would think we were doing it for attention, or that it was a dumb idea that wouldn't change anything.

"I really hope it helps in some small way. I do know that the day the notes were up, the school seemed like a nicer place.''

Autumn Huff Garick, Bryn's mother, eventually posted something about the notes on Facebook and it soon hit newspapers, websites and TV news shows. Instead of getting in trouble, the girls were honored as Oviedo High's students of the week.

"It was a silly little gesture, but it was heartfelt,'' said Huff Garick. "And as hokey as it sounds, I hope it makes people realize that we can still be nice to each other. I think this election made everyone feel like the world was filled with these evil, awful, nasty people. And that's just not true.

"I still believe there are more good people in our world, and I hope we have enough little moments like this that can snowball.''

Bryn Garick never did find out what happened to the 400 Post-It notes. She heard that some students took their favorite ones as souvenirs, and she suspects the maintenance staff gathered the rest.

When she peeked in the restroom later in the day, she saw some notes on the floor and immediately closed the door. She didn't know if it was gravity or someone's anger that was the cause.

She decided to hope for the best.