I teach on the fourth floor of NYU’s Bobst Library. The library is an atrium design with twelve floors of balconies overlooking the main floor. I remember years ago, when I was a graduate student, staring down from a balcony for the first time: the black and and gray and white tiles form a mosaic of spikes. For a long time, there was a rumor that the floor’s design psychologically kept people from jumping. But then people started jumping. Students threw themselves onto the spiked floor. One by one. From the balconies. Dying on impact. So the design theory was shot.
In recent years, the view from the balconies has become clouded by the plexiglass that extends up 10 feet on each floor. This plexiglass, school officials believed, would keep more students from jumping. But then last week, a junior scaled the plexiglass wall and he too threw himself from a balcony.
Yesterday when I went to teach, I was greeted by a security guard. He smiled from the bench outside the elevator; I smiled back. A couple of hours later, between classes when I went out for tea, I saw him again. He smiled. I looked up at each floor of the library, and through the plexiglass, I saw that on each floor was a security officer. Their job, I guess, was to wrestle down anyone who tried to scale the wall.
The whole scene was haunting. It made me wonder why the school hadn’t extended the plexiglass all the way to the ceiling on each floor; perhaps even more, it made me wonder why they had thought plexiglass would solve anything at all.
I have to admit: now that I’m a mother, teaching feels different. I have less sympathy for my students, less time and energy, but, at the same time, I love them more; they seem more capable than ever of bringing me joy or sorrow. I think I used to equate them with me (how PAINFUL to get a B!) but now I’m more inclined to think about Eva at their age (and if she earns a C she deserves it!).
And so yesterday–thinking of my students looking up at each guarded floor and of the guards looking over at each of my students–it broke my heart a little that none of them had likely ever seen the library when it was a true atrium. They only see it as it is now: glassed in–a protective coat that fails to protect–and almost eerily devoid of echoes.
I sipped my tea at the front of the room. At one point, I had to sit on my hands to keep me from reaching out to them. I’m sorry, I wanted to say, and I wanted to say it loud enough that it would bounce off the walls and land deep inside of them. Instead, I drew squares on the board and talked about textual integration until my tea grew cold. Then, one by one, they gathered their things and left.