Choose Respecting The Dead

Editor’s note: This article is part of a larger conversation about an incident involving the Tappan Square rocks which began with Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Comparative American Studies Meredith Gadsby’s and Chair of Geology Zeb Page’s letters to the editor. Third-year Aniella Day has also written a response.

At the beginning of this semester I left my dorm room after it had gotten dark and stood in Tappan Square in the snow staring at a rock. I had never used spray paint before and had no idea what I was doing, but I knew that what I was doing was important, so I got down to business. I didn’t do a great job, but eventually the phrase “Helen Hastings ’24 ’02-’21” was written across the rock in red spray paint. It was drippy and looked a bit too symbolic, but it was done. 

I hadn’t known Helen for long. We had met that September when she said the phrase “I’m gonna break your Nico Nico Kneecaps” and refused to take it back. I still have no idea what that actually means, which reflected our friendship — strange and confusing, but it was ours. I didn’t know everything about her, I cannot tell you what her favorite food was, or what her parents’ names are, but we were still close. The news of her death this January gutted me, and my friends spent a total of over five hours sitting with me on FaceTime and Google Hangouts while I cried. 

I chose to paint Helen’s name on the back of the rock that memorialized Aiden Day ’because, despite how long it had been up, no one had painted over Aiden’s name. I hoped that Helen would get the same kind of respect. I spent the next three months doing upkeep, and maintaining the rock everytime the rain or snow smudged it or it started to chip. I organized the closest thing to a funeral that she ever got. We stood around a bench in the snow, staring at four candles that refused to light, sharing stories and memories of Helen, trying not to cry as we all froze our asses off. The closest thing to an obituary or eulogy that Helen has was written by The Oberlin Review, a student-run school newspaper with no ties to the administration. Because of the nature of journalism, this article was published very soon after our return to campus and Helen’s death, and many of her friends weren’t emotionally ready to contribute quotes or be interviewed. 

One day when I was walking by to go to a rehearsal for my acting class, I saw my worst nightmare. Helen’s rock was covered in white paint. The only memorial my friend had was gone. I did what I think most people would do — after running over to make sure that I wasn’t hallucinating, I started to cry. I wasn’t looking for an explanation, but one was right in front of me. The local Girl Scout troop was painting the rock as part of their “choose kindness project.” The irony of this was not lost on me. As I was crying, the two leaders of the Girl Scout troop — adults — chose to approach me and they told me that the rocks were public property and that they weren’t permanent, and that I had no real right to be upset. They told me that if I wanted something that would last, I should get a small rock engraved. They also said that they had looked up Helen and hadn’t found anything — as if it made things better. They didn’t stop shaming me for being upset until my friend came to collect me.

Later I told my friend who knew Helen that the rock had been painted over. They ran to talk to the same two Scout leaders, and had a similar experience of dismissal, being told that it was their right to do this, and that we should have installed something permanent. After they took off, I was questioned by Campus Safety Officers who proceeded to lecture me again about how the rocks are public property and I shouldn’t be upset. After getting sufficiently scolded, I was told to give them my T-number and name so that the conversation could be recorded. 

My friends and I understand that the rocks are public property. We know that they are first-come-first-serve. But there are three rocks in Tappan Square, and they chose the one rock commemorating two dead Oberlin students. In every culture there is something about respecting the dead, and the Girl Scout troop leaders chose not to respect that, and then were angry when we were upset. These sentiments seemed to be echoed by Campus Safety, who kept a car parked across the street from the rock for the remainder of the day, and ushered away my friend after their encounter with the Scout leaders. 

The entirety of my experience with Helen’s death has been kids being forced to pick up adults’ slack. The email we got about Helen’s death included one singular link to the Counseling Center. Nothing else. The school did nothing to attempt to memorialize her, they organized nothing for us, and forced us to fight for our right to mourn. We were told to create something permanent, but permanence is a very hard thing to achieve when everything is either public property, and therefore subject to change, or private property, and therefore inaccessible. This experience as well as the articles published by the faculty discussing the situation are just two more examples of the College’s massive mishandling of the situation. The fact that I have to write this article is just another time that I, a kid, have to pick up the slack left by the adults; I have to defend myself and my friends, and prove that I am not an embarrassment to the community. 

Yes, I’m angry about the situation. Yes, I’m angry at the College. But mainly I’m just sad. Helen deserves better. Aiden deserves better. I hope that this incident might be able to convince Oberlin to give both Helen and Aiden what they deserve — which is at the very least a memorial. 

Here are some links to on-campus mental health resources for suicidal ideation, traumatic loss, and private practitioners in the area.

Crisis support is also available with a licensed counselor at (855) 256-7160 or the Sucide Hotline at (800) 273-8255.