After class, I left the piles of essays unmarked, and walked out into the spring sunshine. I didn’t know where I was going, I just kept walking for the pleasure of it, past the petrol stations and the busy allotments, until I came to a part of the city I had never been in before, though I knew that some of my pupils lived there. I stopped for a glass of wine in a cosy local.
By the time I emerged it was getting dark. I was feeling tired and had to ask directions to the nearest S-Bahn. An old man directed me, but he must have been confused, or maybe it was the wine, because soon I was completely lost. The street I was following was skirted by a high wall that looked like it had been built centuries ago. It was patched and pitted, with great lumps hewn out of it. Suddenly it turned a corner, and I turned with it. There, right in front of me was a girl, about fourteen, writing with a spray can. When she saw me, she caught her breath and ran. I called out to her : I only want to ask directions. But she didn’t even look back. I glanced up at the fresh paint at what she had been spraying. It read: Spirits, here at eight. Prepare to die.
I scanned the other older graffiti on the wall – there were a number of older warnings issued between the local gangs. Antifa, we’ll put your lights out! Zero Heroes. Watch your mouth! North Crew back off! Punks not death! I came back again to the fresh message: Spirits, here at eight. Prepare to die. I looked at my watch. It was already half-past seven. I was about to retrace my steps when I heard someone coming fast along the side of the wall from the direction I had come. Some instinct made me stepped back into the shadows to see who might be in such a hurry, without being seen. It was a small boy, no more than ten, much younger than the boys in my class. He stopped in front of the new message, and, with a single sweep of his arm, as if the spray-can were an organic extension of it, and the paint a natural excretion, he sprayed in swirling silver letters across it, TOY.
To be honest, it wasn’t my sense of public duty as a teacher, more my curiosity about the secret culture of the young that made me step from the darkness and grab the boy by the collar. The spray-can went flying. He wriggled like a fish on a hook. His little round face was a terrible yellow under the streetlamp. ‘You police?’ he asked. ‘No, but that’s where I ought to take you, isn’t it.’ He glowered at me. ‘What does this mean?’ I asked, pointing at the message he had just cancelled. He shrugged. ‘The Spirits are showing out...their graf's crap... Zero don’t like it, so he told me to toy it’. ‘Zero Hero?’ He nodded. ‘Queen of the Spirits says she’s gonna rub us out, take over ’. ‘And what would that mean?’ I asked. He drew his hand across his throat like a knife. ‘Television at home’. As if this were the death penalty. Then with a sudden wrench, he was free of me again and away. I picked up the spray can that still lay lying on the ground. It was still half-full.
Now I was intrigued. And with the half-full spray can in my hand, I realised I was suddenly in a position of enormous power. For once, I was in the world of the young, which I had so often observed from outside, from behind the teacher’s desk, but with increasing incomprehension. But now I suddenly had the means to intervene. I practised my technique for a few seconds at the bottom of the wall where no one would look, and when I felt confident enough with my new tool, I sprayed an enormous heart across the wall, and wrote inside: The Queen of the Spirits loves Zero Hero, true. Then I sent a bold arrow right through the heart. And for the first time I experienced the secret rush that comes with writing on the wall.
Several shadowy outriders came and looked at the new message, then melted back into the night. A distant church clock struck eight, and for a few minutes I thought nothing had come of my plan. But then as if from opposite wings of the stage, a boy and a girl stepped into the pool of light beneath the streetlamp. They stood opposite each other, silent. By their proud bearing, I could tell I was in the presence of the gang-leaders. It was a tense moment. They stood like that for several minutes, as if any speech or movement would be an admission of defeat. Then finally, the Queen spoke. ‘What this crap?’ She pointed accusingly at the wall. Zero Hero did not respond. She wanted an answer. ‘ Think you’re hard, doncha? Still no response. The Queen walked across and slapped Zero Hero across the face. He didn’t flinch, and did not retaliate. The Queen walked away, and for a moment, I thought the parley has ended in failure, but then she turned, walked straight back to the King and kissed him. The next moment he had enfolded her in his arms, and the alliance was complete. They walked off arm and arm into the darkness. I was suddenly filled with an enormous sense of hope. At last I had done some good in the world beyond the classroom, even if the encounter between the boy and the girl had been as awkward as the mating ritual of the rhinoceros. I still had the silver spray can in my hand, and as I walked back along the long wall, I felt enormously liberated in my spirit, and I began to spray messages of hope, every few yards, anything that came into my head: give peace a chance, knowledge is power, the pen is mightier than the sword... It was good for once, not to be writing with a red pen. I signed the messages with my tag: Big Foot.
I didn’t mention my nocturnal adventure to a single soul. The idea that a teacher, a state employee had disappeared into the night to scrawl graffiti over the walls of the city he was supposed to be educating, would have cost me not only my job, my pension, but most crucially my respect, even though what I had done had brought peace to the gangs. I was dying to ask the pupils who I know lived in that part of town whether that peace was still holding. But I knew I could not, without giving myself away.
It was after the lunch-break, I came back into the class-room early to tackle the pile of essays I had neglected the night before. Someone had been in before me. On the blackboard, in an exact replica of my tag, an unseen hand had chalked Big Foot, and in huge block letters next to it, the word TOY.