Jewish Bathrooms and Unicorns

By Erica Brown

Many Jewish organizations where I’ve worked, prayed and volunteered share a similar feature: the anti-domestic abuse poster hanging in the bathroom stall. The posters often feature a collage of sad, frightened individual men and women and a possible, loving solution: a telephone number of a Jewish organization that exists to help, without question or judgment. Maybe other religions or ethnically aligned organizations share this feature, but I’ve come to think of it as the Jewish Bathroom: the stall of compassion and a lifeline in the most private of spaces.

Why then do I always feel so strangely uncomfortable about these posters and have wished, on many occasions, that they be taken down? I firmly support the work of these organizations, but the posters irk me. This past week, I was finally able to put words to my uneasiness.

On MLK Day, I participated in George Washington University’s community day of service, the single largest service day in the DC area. There were hundreds of us in the same T-shirts pumped up in an auditorium and sent on buses all over DC. The volunteers from my school were sent to DC’s only public elementary school for girls, a former failed charter school, in one of DC’s poorest neighborhoods. The school was empty of children, beautifully clean; the boards going down the corridors shined with student work. We met two remarkable teachers who created a “Bathroom Club” for students. Together, teachers and students were going to paint every bathroom a different theme and cover its walls with quotes. One completed bathroom had a superhero theme. In another, a wall covered in yellow and purple dots and red flowers said: “A rose is still a rose … baby girl, you’re still a flower. You hold the power.” Over the bank of sinks a black and white cartoon blurb said, “She believed she could so she did” and over a toilet, a student had painted, “You are beautiful.”

The club had completed two bathrooms and needed help to start the next two. We divided in half. Some faculty and students began work on the Candyland themed bathroom; I was part of the group tasked to create a unicorn-themed bathroom. “Can anyone draw a unicorn?” the 5th grade teacher asked. I was the only one to raise my hand. I spent the next two hours painting a unicorn mural in white and pastel pink, blue and orange. I could paint unicorns all day.

Amid the student chatter of fraternity rushing and dorm room dramas, I painted in meditative silence. I thought about bathrooms. I had an epiphany. How wonderful it would be if similar projects took place in public schools across America and in Jewish day and congregational school bathrooms; if art was owned by students who could regularly see their work on display. It was a quiet form of empowerment. Then I thought about how much I would have appreciated such bathrooms in my own school growing up. Then I remembered.

Bathrooms were a frightening place for me as a kid. I was often bullied. In my day, the three worst spaces for kids who were bullied were the lunchroom, the playground and the bathroom. Teacher supervision is minimal or non-existent. Outside the classroom, kids rule, and the kind of kids who ruled were never the kind who were kind to me. I joined the safety patrol to avoid such kid-dominated spaces in the morning and often hid in the library at lunch.

It was more than forty years ago, but standing in a unicorn bathroom made me both happy and surfaced a lot of strange and sad feelings about school bathrooms. Suddenly it made sense. The bright colors punching out bright possibilities in this elementary school helped me finally understand why the domestic abuse posters made me feel bad. They trigger a lot of dormant tensions. And something tells me I may not be alone in these feelings. As a kid, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to call a hotline, but I sure could have used the affirmation on a purple outside stall circled with fuchsia dots: “I am worthy of love. There is nothing that can change that I was born worthy.”

In the age of internet, the utility of such posters is questionable. Few will return to a bathroom stall to write down a number. We do need these posters in prominent spaces to communicate that no one is alone in this fight, that everyone who needs support must get it, that domestic abuse will not be tolerated in our Jewish spaces. But in our most intimate spaces, when we suit up to face some of the struggles outside the bathroom door, we might be better served by this bold mantra in all caps over a toilet in DC: TODAY I CHOOSE TO BE CONFIDENT. Or maybe, as the odd one out, I could have used the affirmation I wrote in a big pink heart next to my new mural: “In a field of horses, be the unicorn.”

Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.