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Writing on the wall

Your academic life is spread out in front of you: books, computer, pens and pencils, tear/snot-splattered tissues. Perhaps the light is flickering above, giving an authentic drug cartel vibe. You are alone. You are in the stacks of Sterling Memorial Library. You’re on edge. A harrowing amount of work has driven you up here, as opposed to the run-of-the-mill desperation that would drive you to Bass. At the bottom of your bag there might be a flask, just in case—drinking alone is an accomplishment, ladies and gentlemen.

You’re about to admit defeat. Clumps of hair, flecked with blood, litter your level-two German textbook. (You’ve ripped your hair out, just to see if you still had the capacity to feel.) As you bow your head to begin weeping onto a transcribed dialogue of Hans and Gisela discussing the virtues of bratwurst and Angela Merkel’s pantsuits, something in front of you catches your eye: writing on the wall—stacks graffiti. You lean closer to read it. “I’m so horny even the crack of dawn better watch out for me.” Mmmm. Poetic. Your eyes scan on the wall. “For MANLY love, be here March 25, 2000. 2:15 pm Sharp.” You facepalm; you’re too late!

Past Yalies have left so many messages up in the stacks for future Yalies to read, to the point that some have aged into illegibility. Some come across as advice: “Do the duty that lies nearest to you.” Some seem more like affirmations: “Know that you are loved.” Several messages are patently factual: “Mary Millz wuzzz hurrrrr.” Other messages are pleas: “I don’t want to grow up.”

Writing on walls is a unique mode of communication. Future tenants of whatever desk you happen to occupy might write you back, provided you write something worth answering. This back-and-forth turns a wall into a conversation, a conversation between Yalies separated by months and years. Near the line “I don’t want to grow up…” someone has answered, “You are in no danger of that (mentally).” After the bold statement “Love doesn’t exist!” is written, “only lust,” and, from different schools of thought, “I’m just sorry you’ve never been in love,” and “BULLSHIT”.

One particular desk, though, has moved from a graffiti back-and-forth into a charged dialogue, attracting the attention of plenty of past occupants. “I don’t know if I’m doing this right. And I’m scared”; nearby, at another desk, the wall calls out, “I’m afraid I’m not making the most of this place.” Below these crises of confidence, other Yalies have answered: “Ditto,” “ME TOO,” “Backatcha,” “Same,” “We’re all scared…life is frightening.”

Yalies have taken to the walls of the stacks to list their anxieties in silent protest. These anxieties are native to Yale. They are the ghosts of what has already been felt. But we should not content ourselves to scribble away our worries, however poetically, on the cold desks of dark, cavernous libraries.

I love the writing in the stacks. It can be funny and heartfelt. But we have to do more than this anonymous manifestation of anxiety. We have to do better than writing our worries on walls and walking away from them when we leave a desk. These angst-ridden scribbles don’t solve our problems, however honest they may be. We must pair the poetry of these scrawled protests with action and recognition—recognition of the problems that cause such protest.

One student, however long ago, wrote, “I love Sarah P., but she doesn’t know I exist.” Then talk to her. Another Yalie etched in, “This semester is going to shit. I hate it.” Then do something about it. Hell, drop a class. Someone else complained, “This paper is due in an hour, but I really need to poop.” Then move your ass and poop.

The walls of the stacks are proof that our anxieties are shared. When you stare at the graffiti up there, you are staring at literally decades of love, regret, worry, determination, unhappiness, and digestive issues. Let’s read them as more than confessions—they can be our calls to action. Maybe the writers of the messages couldn’t muster the courage to change their situation, but we can.