Tappan Square Rocks Are Timeless, Their Messages are Fleeting

A young life lost is a tragedy for all, keenly felt by friends who have to keep moving through a world in which their classmate is strangely, shockingly missing. The need to memorialize those we have lost is strong, and painting the rocks in Tappan Square is a good start. But who knows how many layers of paint are on those glacial boulders? How many memorials are sandwiched in between messages of love, congratulations, and just plain silliness? One thing every memorial message on a Tappan Square rock shares is that it will inevitably be painted over. The rocks belong to all of us, those who call this place home for a few years while at college, and those who grow up and live their lives in this town. We use them to show grief and joy, to call out injustice, and to celebrate milestones. But even though the rocks seem timeless, the messages on them are, like human lives: only fleeting.

On Friday, a group of local Girl Scouts painted a message of kindness on one of the Tappan rocks, celebrating the chance to be outside with friends for the first time after a long COVID-19-impacted winter. To some passing Obies, their joy was a desecration: covering a memorial to a friend lost, and renewing the students’ pain. Sadly, the College students let their sadness turn to anger, berating the scouts’ leaders (fortunately before the girls were present), then waiting for the cover of night to erase the children’s work and not long after dark, the memorial was repainted. This weekend, parents across town are struggling to explain to more than one crying child why their message on the rock was so short-lived.

There are more permanent ways to memorialize our lost ones. The next time you walk across campus, take the time to read some of the plaques on benches or near mature trees that were only saplings when mourning parents and friends planted them as tokens of their loss. These markers persist and can provide solace for years to come; friends and family gather to remember their lost loved ones long after any painted memorials have been covered over many, many times. Painting over the artwork of children is a petty act that honors no one — and is unlikely to provide much comfort to the bereaved. To the Obies who lashed out in pain this week: I urge you to remember that your memorials will soon be swallowed up by more layers of paint on the Tappan rocks, but your actions will be remembered by 15 local kids, their families, and their friends. Think of the mean-spirited lesson you have taught them. This is the sort of story that is used to caricature Obies as out of touch with and disdainful of their broader community, and the kind that lasts much longer than a single coat of paint on a rock.

No one doubts your sorrow and your loss — least of all the girls who painted the rock. This has been a season of pain for all of us. Few people understand rash acts as well or forgive them as quickly as children, and the strength of community is that we can come together to take care of each other during hard times. I ask you to reach out to the scouts (Professor Meredith Gadsby or I can put you in touch) and take their leader up on the offer she made you Friday afternoon to work together to create a more lasting memorial to your friend. At the very least, you could come together, share stories of your friend, and combine your messages of loss and kindness, painting the rock again together as an act of healing. Like all the other messages, it won’t last forever, but the good feelings might.