“This guy must want to get caught. You can still smell the spray paint!”
Lem Saunders, the grey-bearded janitor at Kingsview High, is standing at the side door of the school gymnasium pointing at a basketball backboard dripping with fresh graffiti.
A pack of tenth-graders pass by, their ears plugged with iPod earphones. Some of them laugh. None offers to help clean up the mess.
The mystery graffiti artist, or ‘tagger,’ is the talk of the school. His graffiti signature is ‘ME,’ in scrawly fluorescent blue bubble letters. He’s already tagged the staff room door, the heating duct above the principal’s office and the side of the pop machine by the girl’s change rooms – all during school hours. Everybody’s guessing where ‘ME’ will show up next.
Joel Bailey, a skinny ninth-grader with a bulging black backpack, steps to the doorway beside Lem.
“Art students must be pretty tall these days,” he says with a smirk.
Lem’s not in the mood for jokes this morning. “I can’t keep up with my normal work, plus clean up all this graffiti every week.”
Joel drops his backpack on the gym floor. Looking up, he says, “That’s gotta be 10 feet high. Do you want me to hold the ladder while you do your janitor eraser job?”
“Thank you, Joel,” replies Lem. “You’re a good kid.”
Joel hangs around the school a lot. Everybody assumes he comes from a troubled home, and has nowhere to go. He doesn’t do well in school – and has no friends.
As Lem reaches the top rung with his can of solvent and a rag, the principal marches triumphantly through the door.
He barks at Lem. “So you caught the social deviant, and now you’re letting him get away with it. Is that it? Your duty is to bring him to my office immediately, not let him help with the cleanup. For the last 30 years, you’ve been too soft. Students don’t respect weakness, Lem. I’ll deal with this.”
Turning to Joel, the principal snarls, “Get to my office!”
Lem glares defiantly from atop the ladder. “I’m due for retirement, so I’ll say what I feel. I’ve watched you ruin many kids in this school with your accusatory attitude. Why would a good kid like Joel do something like this? He’s the only one who volunteered to help. All the other kids just walked by and laughed. Now, get back in your office, and let me do my job!”
The principal scowls at them both, but slowly retreats to his office.
Lem Saunders retires three months later. His send-off retirement party is in the gym on a Friday afternoon.
One wall displays a gigantic white sheet of paper. Mrs. Ferguson, the French teacher, takes the microphone. “For many years, Lem, you cleaned up graffiti in this school, along with other unmentionable messes. We wish to give you some ‘good graffiti’ to take with you into your retirement.”
Students, staff and parents walk to the wall to record their memories of Lem with colourful markers.
Near the end of the party, Joel Bailey joins a group of parents at the wall. He draws a ladder and scribbles several lines. Then he quickly pulls a spray can out of his jacket, and ‘ME’ appears in scrawly fluorescent blue bubble letters.
The crowd gasps as the smell of paint permeates the gym.
Joel turns toward Lem. “Mr. Saunders, I know I’m kicked out for good now, but I wanted you to know it was me.”
“But why, Joel?”
“I needed the world to know I exist. Other than my graffiti, you’re the only one that ever made me feel that way.”
Allen Unrau, from Abbotsford, writes fiction about real life.