Students in Professor Lisa Phillips’ Literature of Journalism class were assigned to immerse themselves in the unfamiliar. Here’s what they found:
Meg Tohill explores the late night study room in Sojourner Truth Library and meets the students who dare stay until the early morning.
The lights are buzzing overhead. The buzz carries throughout the entire ground floor, the quiet floor. Someone keeps sighing. Another scribbles something over and over again, careful to get it right. The two students take no notice of each other.
The scent of old books and window cleaner is strong. Suddenly I wonder the last time any of these kids ate. When I look at them all pouring over their coursework, I recognize childish frustration, childish exhaustion and childish ambition. They are just kids.
As I snake through the stacks, I do a headcount. There are approximately fifteen students remaining and it’s almost midnight. The Reference Desk closed three hours ago. The research assistants are long gone.
At exactly 11:45 p.m. a voice comes on overhead.
“The ground floor will be closing in ten minutes. The ground floor will be closing in ten minutes.”
Like being woken from a trance, the fifteen students that remain begin to pack up their things, slowly. Trickling out, they are all looking a few years older than I assumed they did when they entered. For some of them, it’s a day done. For others, it’s only halftime.
Sheep. They are sheep as they huddle into the white room. It’s action driven from pure necessity.
The Late Night Study Room: White walls, white desktops and white lights bear an awfully close resemblance to a hospital operation room.
I throw my bag down on a comfy green armchair and begin to watch them all settle in. There are eight of them and they are dragging their feet.
Within seconds the room fills with a buzzing, different from what could be heard on the ground floor. Pencils moving, keys clicking and papers shifting.
I grow nervous, thinking maybe it was a poor decision to try and talk to students during these critical hours. I wait five minutes. I wait ten minutes. I pretend to be working on my laptop in order to prevent making anybody uncomfortable. I fill up my water bottle to buy time.
Across from me in the opposite armchair is a boy in a crisp white button down. Despite the novel in his hand and furrowed brow, I ask him what he is reading.
He looks up, somewhat startled.
“The Stranger, by Albert Camus,” he says in a medium whisper. He tells me it’s his second time reading the novel. The first time was for leisure, he says.
When I ask him how far in he is this time around, he chuckles, shakes his head and informs me, “not far enough.”
He hopes to have the book finished and a paper written about it for his linguistics class due in a few hours. I hesitate to continue the conversation, knowing he has a strict timeline. I push on.
I explain that I’m observing the Late Night Study Room as a subculture. He likes that.
He quickly tells me his name is Guy. He’s a first year studying Philosophy and Creative Writing. He also informs me that time management isn’t his strong suit.
Guy finds himself in the room for the first time all year. Despite the amount of work he has laid out ahead of him, he seems relieved to be talking to me. He seems relieved to be doing something other than staring at a page. He cracks a small smile in my direction and suddenly I’m reminded of my younger brother.
I think back to a phone call I received a few days prior. My brother called me, crying, telling me he didn’t know how to handle the added responsibility of honors high school classes.
“I want to be a good student, but I just don’t think I want to feel this empty all of the time,” he said. “I’m giving up all of my energy for classes I don’t even enjoy.”
When I ask Guy how old he is, he asks me why. I say, “No reason.” He tells me he’s 18, just a boy.
Guy doesn’t anticipate the night going too quickly and I don’t blame him.
“Why such a late start on the work?” I ask.
He shrugs his shoulders and shakes the curly mop on his head.
“I had to prioritize other school work,” he admits. Rattling off his loaded schedule, I learn that he’s a student athlete and, on top of his school work, he makes time to read for himself at least a half hour every day.
He doesn’t seem angry, just resigned. Something tells me Guy might frequent the room a few more times throughout the rest of the semester.
I scan the room. Two students are together. The rest spread out, careful to create their own physical space. I assume this will hopefully attribute to strong, individual headspace for each one of them.
Before talking to anyone else, I suppress a yawn and focus on the carpeting. I decide I hate its pattern. Colorless, just a series of lines, it drains the room of any potential creativity minus the ugly armchair I’m sitting in and that’s, well, ugly.
To prepare for the long night ahead of me, I had taken a four hour nap, hoping that it would curb my usual need to be asleep by 10:00 p.m. I suppress another yawn. The Late Night Study Room was a topic otherwise foreign to me: I prioritize sleep over everything. I made sure that I didn’t ever end up sacrificing it.
The girl to my left sneezes. Nobody says anything. I offer a quick “bless you” quietly as I walk over to her.
Her tight bun, pristine glasses and honors program sweatshirt scream “strictly business.” I immediately feel intimidated when her eyes don’t even as much as flutter over me when I say a quick greeting.
With a little coercing, Bri agrees to talk to me, as long as I promise not to be more than five minutes. I promise.
I take in her setup. She has four different colored highlighters and three blue Bic pens all neatly lined up next to her pink spiral notebook and her Macbook. Next to all of that is her water bottle and two granola bars.
I ask her if she usually comes this prepared. She begrudgingly admits that she forgot her eye drops.
When I don’t understand she elaborates.
“After a few hours, my eyes begin to dry out from looking at the screen, so I bring eye drops, but I was in a rush to get here today and I forgot them,” she says.
I ask how long she has been in the library. In turn, she asks me what time it is. 1:15 a.m., I report.
“Oh, well, I got here at 7,” she shrugs.
My stomach growls loudly and I ask what she ate for dinner. She blinks. 15 seconds go by before she’s able to tell me she had a granola bar. I pick up one of the granola bars in front of her.
“Same flavor?” I ask.
Finally, Bri cracks a smile. Shaking her head, she informs me that she switched on and off between s’mores and peanut butter to keep things interesting.
Without being prompted, she tells me she’s starting a research paper that isn’t due for a few weeks but she couldn’t possibly waste any time.
Bri is here three times a week and she tells me that she catches up on sleep during the weekends.
“I don’t get to do nearly as many things as I would like to get done, but I’ve got the grades to show for it,” she jokes lamely, as if she knows that the long nights might be hurting other aspects of her life.
She’s a psychology major with ambitions of working as a psychiatrist. Bri’s face lights up when she begins talking about her dreams. Like Guy, I am reminded of my little brother when talking to Bri.
I ask her how old she is. 23.
I sit back down near the window. I realize I’m not the only one admiring the night sky.
His name is Matteo and he’s trying hard to prolong having to do his work. He’s in deep. He has a 20 page philosophy paper due tomorrow at 2:00 p.m. and he has only just begun looking for sources to begin citing.
With hands in his jean pants pockets, he says he would much rather be outside everyday than be confined to the walls of the college.
“Higher education just doesn’t seem to be right for everyone, y’know?” He prompts me.
I nod. I know.
I bid Matteo good luck. I don’t think he hears me because he doesn’t respond. Maybe he does hear me. Matteo is 20. He’s undecided.
I make my way back to the chair near a tired looking Guy. Across the room, I notice a girl has fallen asleep on her notebook. Nobody has the heart to wake her. The whole room looks on with envy.
The guy sitting next to her locks eyes with me. He shrugs. He pulls out an earbud as I walk toward him.
“You doin’ a survey or something?” he asks.
I tell him what’s up. He’s interested.
Jason tells me that he doesn’t sleep very well during the night, so his nights are spent best in the library.
I ask him what music he listens to while doing his work. He shrugs again.
Jason is an engineering major and he doesn’t anticipate graduating in the expected four years. Between the course load and trying to juggle working a part-time job as a delivery boy, Jason doesn’t think it’s healthy to try.
I nod and he continues on. He likes knowing how things work and how they can be made better. It’s why he chose engineering, he told me.
“Have you started thinking about life outside of school?” I ask him.
Jason’s face goes blank.
“Every day, but that doesn’t mean I have anything figured out, because I don’t.”
I thank Jason and walk back to my seat. He immediately puts his earbud back in.
I watch Guy pack up his stuff.
“You out?” I whisper over to him.
He nods quickly and tells me he’s going to finish the assignment tomorrow, after a few hours of sleep.
We all watch him leave. The room instantly falls silent once again.
Bri has gone through both granola bars.
Jason seems to be sifting through a playlist.
Matteo still has his eyes on those stars, not having made a dent in any of the work he mentioned to me before. My eyes grow heavy and I don’t think I’ll be here voluntarily again.
I don’t talk to everyone in the room. I think if I tried I would find a similar naivete in all of them.
It’s 3:55 a.m. early Wednesday morning. There are three left aside from me. They notice the time, as if they almost needed an excuse to put their pencils down, to turn off their laptops.
They join in a chorus of yawns. I’m helpless to stop one of my own.
Once again, these students pack their things and head out the door, only this time toward the promise of something much greater than anything they were working on prior: sleep.
We can all hear morning birds already but nobody says anything about it. In fact, nobody says anything.
Read more about #ImmerseYourself here:
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Matt Schenfeld goes underground exploring house shows and the performers of New Paltz’s music scene.
Emily King is a farm girl at heart, but keeps that a secret as she accompanies the Sustainable Agriculture Club on campus and discovers what they think of the future of farming.
Bryan Godwin watches band MoonUnitt who is new to New Paltz perform and light up the house show scene.
Max Freebern is confused about this wave of music new to him called Noise music, but he sits back and lets it surround him.
Maeve Allen watches puppets perform during a rehearsal of Avenue Q, where the theater department students express themselves through their characters.
Sabrina Petroski joined the SUNY New Paltz burlesque troupe for their 10-year anniversary show where she learned more than just the art of burlesque.