Looking for wisdom in empty classrooms.
By Will Lyman
It has become a tradition of mine to wander around campus on the weekends in search of an empty classroom. I roam, popping my head into each room of Hamilton, or if I’m feeling classy, Pupin. It’s a desire that grows in springtime. Eager to escape shafted apartments and dorm lounges, I search for a space to congregate under the guise of productivity. When the Wifi cuts out on Low Steps, or the first rain cloud appears on an otherwise sunny day, I flock to the empty buildings. Under these conditions, I’ve found myself watching Ma (2019) on a projector in Kent and getting lost in a private science lab in NoCo with a fellow English major—way out of our league.
When I arrived back to campus in the fall of 2020, I seized the opportunity to explore all the buildings I’d never visited. My exploration was, in part, a reminiscence on the trauma of freshman year, but also to hopefully find “my spot”—somewhere to stake my allegiance. Campus’ silence made the activity almost meditative. I learned there were two Schapiros, two Butlers, and two Dodges. Sakura Park, situated by Riverside Church, became my second home. I discovered that selfies in the window of the SIPA building on 113th Street were a weekly necessity. The lighting does wonders for undereye bags.
There’s a strange sense of authority I glean from being in an educational space for recreational purposes. It’s the same feeling I would get in middle school, wandering the dimly lit hallways after seeing the spring musical, emboldened by the knowledge that I was standing at my locker, but at night.
So, on the weekends, I raid Hamilton. I take the elevator, because nobody is there to crowd me. I use the left-handed desks for the thrill of it. And I distract friends by projecting the Nicole Kidman AMC commercial through University computers. Dazzling images on a silver screen. Somehow heartbreak feels good in a place like this.
Throughout these days of barely getting anything done, I often turn my attention to half-erased writings on the chalkboards of our classrooms. I find leftover lessons from University Writing or introductory lectures, scribbled in chalk: a series of incomplete truths. In Hamilton 309, a completed game of hangman that someone forgot to erase. The word was ‘pearl.’ In Fayerweather 310, there is a drawing of a square with an arrow sprouting from it—either strategy for a baseball game plan or the age-old lesson to step outside of your comfort zone. I use these leftover relics to learn by proxy, an effort to milk the wisdom from a class I never attended. It’s not dissimilar from zoning out during lecture and then trying to retrace the professor’s steps from their seemingly random notes on the board.
In Hamilton 516, I tried very hard to decipher an algebra equation that had been left unerased. I thought back to the quadratic formula and the point-slope equation, mustering up any knowledge I had from my three weeks of AP Calculus four years ago. I successfully remembered the box method for factoring trinomials but gave up shortly after applying the method. In Lewisohn 505, upon seeing “interquartile range” written on the board next to a diagram of a bell curve, I was vividly brought back to Introduction to Statistical Reasoning, which I took freshman year. In Fairchild 601C, my friend drew an elaborate portrait of me on the whiteboard using blunt Expo markers. There I left a masterpiece for someone else to see. In Hamilton 602, “HOBBES,” written in bubble letters, sits beside a cursive trio: “structure, rhythm, color.” They seem unrelated to me, but I could be wrong. I wasn’t there when each letter was bubbled or scribed, after all.
As I travel through our school’s hallowed halls in search of empty rooms, I think of the park-and-bark professors who don’t write on the board and how I’m missing all of their residual bits of knowledge. I’m reminded of how little I know. It’s the same feeling as seeing Demosthenes on the Butler frieze and coming to terms with how the Core can never be all-encompassing, how there are countless ancient thinkers who got there first, how you can never and will never know everything. I can only take what I see—and possibly incorporate it into my own college zeitgeist—or leave it.