ESSAY- Scribo, ergo sum: Everybody's got something to say

Hummingbirds? Here? I'd never seen one. And then, on a Sunday afternoon, my husband came home with a hummingbird feeder. He filled it with sugar water dyed red, hung it up on the porch, and within minutes, two tiny birds with iridescent green feathers were hovering about, sipping that sweet nectar. Who knew?

I imagined the woods around my house concealing huddled masses of hummingbirds, yearning for a reservoir of red sweetness, and that these two birds were so relieved to have found this opportunity that they fearlessly approached the lemonade-sipping giants lounging on the porch.

The memory of my hummingbird "who knew?" moment sprang to mind recently in an unlikely spot. I was standing in front of the Community Chalkboard on the Downtown Mall, dirty water and sweat dripping from my arms and legs. I had just finished helping to scour a week's worth of chalk inscriptions from this monument to the First Amendment.

The Chalkboard, which is sponsored by The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, gets a scrubbing once a week. This week, Josh Wheeler, associate director of the Center, had appealed for help: The usual cleaning crew hadn't gotten the job done on Friday, and here it was Sunday and the very next morning would be the grand opening of the Charlottesville Transit Center. He wanted the chalkboard monument to look spiffy, because it's right beside the new building.

Never one to pass up the opportunity to use a pressure washer, I volunteered to join the improvised cleaning team. We worked in the unseasonably warm air, under a sky so clear there was not so much as a jet trail to mar the intense blue.

It was fun to wield that high-pressure nozzle and blast the words and drawings off the board. Pink hearts and the names of lovers, along with opinions about religion and war, dissolved and slid away under the intense barrage of water:  

The emperor has no brains, I love Jason, Remember the troops– all reduced to a gray puddle under my feet.

Passersby stopped to find out what was going on, and once satisfied that it was routine maintenance and not a plot to silence anyone, went on their way. Some of them, though, hovered nearby and watched. I wasn't sure what was so interesting about the spectacle of a few people scrubbing a chalkboard– until we were almost finished.

As each panel of the monument became a blank slate– but was not even dry yet– people helped themselves to sticks of chalk, and began writing.

My first thought was, "Hey! I just washed that!" I had assumed the board would stay fairly clean for the photo-op the next morning at the opening of the Transit Center.

Oh, how wrong I was. Much like those hummingbirds venturing out of the bushes at the sight of that glistening beaker of ruby nectar, people flocked to the chalkboard, hungry for the opportunity to express themselves in public.

Among those writing on the chalkboard were people still dressed in their best going-to-church clothes, and elderly folks strolling the Mall with grown children, all of whom approached the wall and wrote a few words or drew a picture. There were parents pushing strollers and herding toddlers– everyone in the family contributed something to the board.

One section quickly filled up with colorful drawings and words, and still people approached, picked up the chalk, and wrote something, knowing it was unlikely that anyone would even notice what they had written.

From what I witnessed that day, it's obvious we have a craving to express ourselves in a public way: I was here, and I have something to say! No wonder we flock to the chalkboard, just as people from all over the world have flocked to the United States since our experiment in democracy began.

Now, when I look at this monument, I know that reading what has been written there is only half of the story. The other part of the experience is appreciating the yearning we all have to express our thoughts without fear, whether on a chalkboard or in a newspaper.