On the Fence

Rachel Mennies teaches writing in various genres and contexts at Carnegie Mellon University. She is the author of the poetry collection The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards and lives in Pittsburgh with a long-legged dog. 

In the middle of Carnegie Mellon University’s campus stands a six-post fence. It neither protects nor encloses a thing. It’s a steel-concrete fixture that spans the width of the main quad, covered in close to a thousand layers of hand-painted—never sprayed or rolled—paint.

Sometimes students sleep outside of it in tents, buckets of paint stewarded inside. They paint over it with their fraternities’ Greek lettering, or an announcement of an annual dance recital, or the name of their dorms.

If you want the true story behind the Fence’s origins, or its assuredly codified set of rules, you’ll have to check a university website or search Google or tap a student on the shoulder and ask her. Everything I know about the Fence I’ve learned by observation: I’ve never taken a campus tour or talked about the Fence with a colleague. I’ve just walked by it, alone, for four years every morning while the campus is still quiet, and watched the new paint dry. 




I teach writing in the English department, and I am a lucky adjunct—the sort who’s found a mostly stable home at a stable private institution. I’ve learned, as a result, how to do a deeply skilled impersonation of a professor. I even have an office, albeit shared, in the departmental wing; my wing-mates, though not quite my colleagues, look like my colleagues to my students when my students visit my office hours. 

The main difference between myself and my tenure-track office-mates, besides their heightened job security and income, is our degree of isolation. I’ve never met any of the faculty in my wing, though they appear to know each other. I suspect they meet each other’s eyelines often in faculty meetings in which, as special faculty, I’m uninvolved; they may even know each others’ spouses or children, as most colleagues who work together for years come to know. My mailbox sits beside theirs in the same wooden stack. I move through the hallways quietly on the days I spend in my office, my door only open if I’m meeting with students.

Instead of asking them all what’s going on, or unfolding the campus paper delivered to our wing each day, I consult the Fence.

This spring, students placed a microphone in front of the Fence and read anonymous stories of sexual assaults on campus back to back. The Fence bore the date and time of the reading in paint that morning; a small crowd gathered and listened as a larger one passed back and forth en route to class. It was the first time I’d heard the Fence speak, and I stayed for as long as I could before retreating to my office. 

As I stood alone among the crowd of students, something I rarely have occasion to do, I noticed that most gripped their phones even though they didn’t photograph or film the event. The devices remained in reach just in case someone might contact them, or something might merit a snap, even during a reading as solemn as this one. And last fall, I witnessed a student walk headfirst into a glass door while texting, crashing his entire body into the pane. Three nearby students slid their own phones into their pockets before bending down to help him. I watched long enough—surely he’d hurt himself?—to see him re-check his phone after he stood, blushing but uninjured. 

In their smartphone dependency, these students are hardly unique in either their addiction or their isolation, but the devices are still banned from my classroom. At 8:30AM on the nose, when I say good morning to my students, nineteen phones drop into backpacks as if choreographed. It won’t kill you to leave your friends hanging for a second, I joke. Remember, you can talk to your classmates.

There are times in the classroom, in the departmental-wing hallways, where loneliness and communion get confusing—or confused. My texting students aren’t communicating with their in-class peers or with their professor, but they’re fervently speaking to someone. On a campus especially known for its loneliness and stress, and with rates of sexual assault (unfortunately) on par with the national average, I understand the risks of silencing my students, even as I work with them to open their voices to each other in my classroom—something, when I retreat to my office, I struggle to do myself. (What do I spend much of my office-hours time doing, if no students arrive? Not knocking on my colleagues’ doors. Instead, talking on Gchat. Instagram. Snapchat.)

When I think of how we often find ourselves lonely on campus while surrounded by others, I think of the students sleeping outside the Fence, waiting for their peers to text each other photos of what they’ve painted. I think of Mark,* the most chronic violator of my cell phone policy. His nonstop texting, despite numerous warnings from me, never abated; he used his iPhone every class of the semester, which technically flagged him for failure. In our penultimate class, in spite of his classmate presenting at the front of the room, I watched Mark cup his iPhone in his palms, his hands moving fast over the screen. But Mark, for the first time I’d seen in fifteen weeks, was grinning—the sort of openly stupid smile someone newly smitten might make. 

This one time, I chose to let it go.

After class ended, I walked past the Fence to the bus stop. I watched as students crisscrossed the quad, surrounding, then leaving the Fence as they headed to anywhere next.



*name changed