After Tommy Moore killed himself, we scrubbed his name from the school’s memory.
At a faculty meeting held the day after he died, the administration outlined an emergency plan designed to address those most affected and to silence any unneeded chatter. Counselors would be on standby that week for one-on-one sessions; classes would proceed as normal, with cell phones confiscated to minimize digital conjecture about the hanging; and after a pre-written blurb was delivered at the beginning of class, we would redirect any conversation regarding the suicide down to the office. The impact of Tommy’s death, we decided, would probably be minimal. The boy had few friends at Meadow Creek High School, and those he had spoke no more than three words to anyone else during the year. But any time a teenager’s mortality is called into question, it’s a powder keg waiting to explode.
As it had in the past, the plan worked and, within a week, few were talking about the incident. At a school of two thousand, there were other matters occupying their attention, especially with prom and graduation on the horizon.
However, two weeks later, a discovery was made in the theater and all plans were thrown on their heads.
Anna Brubaker, a sophomore who had probably spoken no more than two words to Tommy, came into the office and had a meeting with Principal Ryan Johnson. Those of us who had had Anna in class described her as an average student with an above average penchant for drama. “There’s something terrible written about Tommy on the backstage wall,” she cried, mascara rivulets streaming down her face. “Why were people so mean to him? He probably did it because of stuff like that.”
On the back wall of the theater, which Tommy must have seen every time he showed up to do tech at rehearsals, someone had written a message in permanent marker: TOMMY MOORE SUX FAGGET COCK. It wasn’t unusual to see such graffiti on the walls, and the janitors typically took care of it. However, sometimes these things slipped through the cracks and these messages remained unnoticed for weeks and even months .
Ryan, in his usual stuttering fashion, assured the sobbing child that he would have it removed immediately, and he asked her to keep the message to herself lest others should see it and become upset. With a whimper, she assured him she would.
Of course, by noon, everyone knew about it, and before the janitors could scrub away the sentiment, someone had crossed it out with a sharpie.
And that should have closed the matter. Two days later, though, the message was back, this time spelled correctly and much larger than before.
The original author of the statement was never discovered nor did we believe that person was the writer of this new message—or of the six that appeared in the following days. Each time the message was rewritten, another student crossed it out before the janitors cleaned it from the walls.
Administration checked the cameras outside the theater, but many students walked through there during the day and there wasn’t a camera backstage, so it could have been anyone.
At a faculty meeting the next week, Ryan spoke about the matter. “All right, we have a situation,” he stuttered, looking at the floor and then the ceiling. “Someone is writing an obscene message about Tommy Moore in the theater. We’ve tried to find out who, but nothing’s come up yet. Some of his closest friends have ideas—kids who bullied him—but they deny it. While we figure this out, I want to ask all of you to keep an ear out in class when students are talking, and if anyone should mention it, send them down to the office immediately.”
Of course, everyone was talking about it, and the chatter eventually grew so loud and so frequent that we needed to threaten punishment. “If you have any information, please redirect it to the office,” we said, “but other than that we will not be discussing this. It’s disgusting and hurtful.” Most students agreed.
Students who had not said so much as a word to Tommy or even known who he was were now championing him. A group of seniors started an unsanctioned club called “The Whitewash Brigade.” Their mission was to keep the theater clean, but soon their efforts needed to expand far past that room, for the message, penned by an elegant hand, found its way around the school.
TOMMY MOORE SUCKS FAGGOT COCK.
It appeared in the boy’s bathroom in the junior hallway, just ten feet from Tommy’s old locker, which led most of us—who had already assumed the gender of the perpetrator—to conclude that it was a junior boy. However, the next day, it not only appeared twice in the boy’s bathroom but also three times in the girl’s. The day after that, it multiplied in both locations, and then it found its way onto Tommy’s locker, the word “faggot” underlined for emphasis.
Students began piling into the office and seeking out the guidance counselor. Some of them were crying while others were shouting for action at the top of their lungs. All of them were assured that the school was investigating the matter.
With so many messages appearing, we thought it was only a matter of time before the vandal was caught, but after checking the cameras, speaking with students, contacting the police, and holding an all-school assembly on the matter, nothing new was discovered.
By the fourth week of this nonsense, over three dozen parents had contacted the principal, threatening to remove their children from Meadow Creek, contact the newspapers, or get their lawyers involved. “What happened to this kid was tragedy,” one mother screamed at Ryan. “And you have someone here writing trash like that. You know that’s why he did it. Because of stuff like that. And now someone keeps it going. I don’t want my daughter exposed to people like that or that kind of language.” Those of us who had taught this mother’s daughter knew she had taken a picture of Tommy Moore one fall day—after he had suffered a sneezing fit and had snot dripping from his nose—and posted it on Snapchat, with a caption saying, “i wunder y i cant get a date.”
Other parents said similar things, to which Ryan kept saying, “We’re looking into it. Police are investigating. We are not taking this lightly.”
“How can you not find out who did this?”
“Are you seriously this incompetent?”
“I don’t want my child learning from people so unbelievably incompetent.”
Poor Ryan—two years from retirement, he must have been considering his options: keep his head down and just deal with it or start fresh with something less stressful (like the bomb squad, perhaps).
Then Whitewash Brigade began writing their own messages in retaliation. TOMMY MOORE WAS SOMEONE SPECIAL, one said. TOMMY MOORE WAS A FRIEND. TOMMY MOORE WAS A SON. TOMMY MOORE WAS A BROTHER. These messages only appeared for two days, though. Ryan, after telling the kids he knew their hearts were in the right place, said, “Vandalism is still vandalism, despite the cause, and therefore it needs to end immediately.” Besides, by that point, most of the messages had been crossed out and the obscene one had been written above them
On Facebook, wars raged between students, most of them expressing their disgust with the offense while a lone, bitter few wrote: “Who cares? They were there while he was alive—why is now any different?” Administration and teachers monitored these conversations—at least those they found ways to monitor—and spoke to the kids in favor of the messages staying.
And still they continued, until Mr. Benson—bright-eyed, naïve Mr. Benson, who was just two years out of college—caught a peripheral glimpse of the author, a boy named Franklin Jennings.
As was characteristic of Franklin, he kept his eyes on the floor and said nothing when Benson confronted him. “Why did you do this?” Benson whispered. “Wasn’t he your friend? This isn’t like you.”
But Franklin Jennings did not respond—could not respond. His eyes welling up with tears, he pushed that large mass down his throat and simply shrugged his shoulders. Benson marched him to the office.
This meeting began the same way the conversation with Benson had— Franklin silent— Questions from the adults.
“Wasn’t Tommy a friend of yours?” Ryan demanded. “You were one of the kids we sent to the counselors that first day. Wasn’t he a friend of yours?”
Franklin slowly began to nod.
“Then why do it?”
Franklin shrugged his shoulders.
Assistant principal Derek Jones slammed his two open palms onto the desk. “What did you hope to accomplish? You know how many hours we’ve spent looking for you?”
“Mr. Jones—” school counselor Haley Thomas started.
“No! He made his bed,” Jones snapped. He bent forward, eyed the boy, and growled, “What did you hope to prove? What did you have against Tommy?”
Franklin raised his head and faced Jones. “I had nothing against him.”
“He was your friend, for God’s sake!”
“He was my friend.”
“And you wrote that nasty thing about him!”
“And I copied that nasty thing about him.”
The boy swallowed hard, wiped his eyes. “I copied it. I didn’t write it.”
“That’s not the point.”
“That is the point.” Franklin stared at Jones. “I didn’t write the original. Anna found that. It was probably one of her friends who did it. Or one of the jocks. Or one of the stoners. Who knows? The point is, it could have been anyone. Anyone but his friends. And then you people think you can just erase it. Why? Because you thought it would hurt his friends? We knew about that message long before he died. He knew about it long before he died. We knew about that one and all the other ones you people erased.”
Franklin swallowed hard, waited for Jones to reply, and when he didn’t he continued. “You think you can read your little speech at the beginning of class, ship us off to the head doctors, and then act as if nothing happened. Someone is bothered by ‘Tommy Moore sucks faggot cock’ after he dies, but no one cared before that. No one gave a shit that one of their students was bullied because he was gay—”
Jones pointed a finger in the boy’s face. “That’s enough.”
An unsettling smile inched across Franklin’s lips as Jones glared down at him.
“Fuck you. You did this. You don’t get to just wash that away.”
We never knew who wrote some of the messages that appeared on the walls in the years after that. They appeared at random, as if a spectre wandered the halls at night. Students? Maybe. Or, maybe, teachers who had heard the jeers and insults muttered in the back of the room while they went on teaching, pretending they were too low to hear, those of us who had liked to believe we were advocates for the students, but who were too goddamn cowardly to stand up for that boy in the back of the room, the one with his head lowered and his mouth sealed shut.
Franklin Jennings took his punishment and we went on thinking we had done the right thing.
• • •
For the last eight years, Tim Hanson has taught high school English. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Blue Moon Literary and Art Review, Botticelli Literary & Art Magazine, Firefly Magazine, Icarus Down Review, and The 3288 Review. Currently, he is working on his first novel. When not teaching or writing, he enjoys traveling to new places with his wife, Jenna.