Vignette: Around the Clock

middlebury libraryFive bright bands of light blaze from an otherwise dark wall as one approaches the Davis Family Library from the south. It is well past ten on this December Sunday night, and with the beginning of exam period, the library has gone on the 24/7 schedule. Snow is said to be on the way, but there are 39 bicycles and one scooter propped outside the main door.

Past the caffeine-brimmed Wilson Café, past cell-phone talkers and a student smiling into a Skype screen on her laptop, through the heavy doors into the atrium, beyond circulation and help desks, to the edge of the most public space in the library: a senior crouches over sheaves of graded papers and photocopied book chapters.

He makes notes in a spiral notebook, but doesn’t appear to be in a concentration groove yet. Sights and sounds: entering and exiting, rendezvous and regroupings, passing bodies, eddies of conversations from beyond shelves, a greater hubbub audible from the outside of the main doors. Here in the ringing gateway to the halls of quiet study there is a parade of distractions, and he looks up frequently. His feet take the place of papers on a low table. He produces a laptop and taps. A friend appears and there is a consultation about take-home exams as well as driving-home plans. Five minutes later, he has removed to other circumstances.

On the eastern end of the main floor, inside the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research, a white board proclaims “Tutoring During Exams!” and lists review sessions for economics, chemistry, and math. Peer writing tutors are on call from early evening until midnight, whether at the center or at various Commons. Nearby, a sign in the Wilson Media Development Lab instructs on technological-software aid: “Turn on. Log in. Get Smart. Tutor available 24/7.”

Up the long curve of the staircase to the second floor, tight focus is the norm in the Quiet Study Area. Faces gleam with reflected light from laptops, elbows flanked by little ramparts of stacked books with pads and pens at the ready, and students silently build arguments, buttress theories, review a semester’s stock of ideas, groping for the perfect handle to carry them all. One is hard-pressed to hear any whispers.

In an unobtrusive, 20-minute stroll past desks, study tables, carrels, darting quick glances at individual screens, not a glimmer of social media can be seen—not one Facebook or Flickr or Renren or LAGbook or LinkedIn—and not one Wikipedia page. Satisfied, relieved, even hopeful, one determines never to take such a poll again in such a place. Better not to spoil the fleeting impression.

At last heading out into the night, with one observer’s exit, the overall age average at Davis Family Library plummets.

Bright and slanting daylight, a smattering of snow on the ground, and the Davis façade of local marble, granite, and limestone is a screen upon which shadows of surrounding winter trees are projected. Behind every window of the Wilson Café is a garland of Tibetan prayer flags, sending up hopes with each tiny flutter from the warm, coffee-scented updrafts of booth tables.

In the gusty vestibule, display cases commemorate the visit of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in 1984—posters, programs, candids from the indefatigable Middlebury photographer Erik Borg.

Farther into the building are similar displays from the Dalai Lama’s appearance in 1990. There are many people in the world who would venerate the sidewalk, the flagstones, the Davis threshold, the slate and carpeted floors, because nine weeks earlier, October 12–13, His Holiness came to Middlebury again to “cultivate hope, wisdom, and compassion” with two addresses in Nelson Arena and a visit to the library to view sacred Tibetan manuscripts and a Tibetan contemporary art exhibition.

Outside Davis, the air scented by bundles of incense, the Dalai Lama blessed a newly planted Burr oak (Quercus macrocarpa) and tied a white fringed prayer shawl around a slender trunk that one day, perhaps in a hundred years, will be as many feet tall and three or even four feet in diameter, the surrounding ground crunchy with acorns.

Inside on the second floor, in his red and saffron robes, His Holiness blessed the work, and those present of five Tibetan artists in the Contemporary Jewels fellowship show presented by the Vermont Studio Center of Johnson, Vermont, and lingered appreciatively before each work.

He smiled before the playful collage of Tenzing Rigdol, born 1982, Excuse Me Sir, Which Way is to My Home? with its central Buddha image and colorful background, entirely constructed from Tibetan brocade cloths, glossy magazine ads, and U.S. maps. He praised the artists for transforming their artistic traditions and techniques to relate to the contemporary world.

Today, in that bright exhibition corner, the 10 paintings giving off their own light, finals-preparing students in their parkas and Midd sweatshirts and watch caps bustle past the art and across the carpet on which the Dalai Lama peacefully stood.

In a study area surrounding the basement’s American literature section, next to a Spiderman backpack, a female student sits on the floor, props her back against shelves of poetry. She is unmindful of an abandoned pillow in a white slip some inches away on the floor.

At the end of the row, a shelf of fiction criticism ending with these three titles: Imagining Los Angeles, Los Angeles in Fiction, and Gillette Foamy, a travel container of shaving soap.

Wednesday, close to cold-December midnight, from the west passing the candle-lit windows of Old Chapel; Davis Library looks like a Spielbergian Mother Ship, with the star-studded, blue-black Vermont sky overhead. Though not one of them is visible passing the moon, 41 bikes attend the main doors.

Sounds from the atrium: Footfalls of winter-weight boots on slate flagstones, buzz of a motorized hole punch, metallic sword sound of a paper cutter, the emphatic punctuation of a stapler, the rolling wheels of a heavily laden book cart fluttering with pink-colored slips.

Downstairs in the lower level, a late-night murmur from a little knot of people in a circle of easy chairs—behind them stands a rough, monumental slab of rock. Muffled but animated words leak from one of the group-study rooms ringing the area.

A female sophomore perches yards away at a table covered by a laptop, graded short stories, a fiction textbook, a water bottle, and a package of Pepperidge Farm cookies. Two male political science students at a nearby table intent on their scrolling laptops are backdropped by periodical shelves displaying recent issues of Die Zeit, La Stampa, Le Monde, and the Rutland Herald.

Recycling bins overflow. Oh, the hidden words!

Two floors above, the study carrels are still well populated at the stroke of midnight. A literature major, surrounded by towering stacks of thesis resources, looks up to blink bleary eyes and refocus. She takes a swig of tea from a thermos and extracts trail mix from a brown bag, shakes her head to realign her thoughts back below the surface of a poem, and is perhaps surprised there is no apparent rattling sound.

Back in the basement behind the display window of Special Collections, the chair, the writing lapboard, the moth-eaten cardigan, and the marble busts of Robert Frost may emanate a sympathetic vibration upward toward the weary young poet above.

Outside cold night air: smokestacker first-years stomp on slate.

Rows and phalanxes of books on their shelves and art and artifacts on the walls. On the second floor, it is of the bold-handed and pigment-generous watercolorist Arthur K. D. Healy (1902–1978), some five large modernist landscape watercolors and an oil portrait; he served on the faculty from 1943–1968.

He was a hotel interiors architect before moving to Vermont as the first artist in residence at Middlebury,” a faculty member once commented while pausing before one of the landscapes, then hanging elsewhere. “One might expect to see these paintings in a 1940s hotel room, as a matter of fact, but he trained many successful artists here and did much to support the Sheldon Museum.”

More historical Vermont images line the walls and populate display cases near Special Collections downstairs—Rutland Railroad artifacts, enlargements of vintage Middlebury postcards, and framed, finely inked maps of the village of Middlebury and its surrounding town, from the F. W. Beers Atlas of Addison County, Vermont, 1871.

Students—perhaps even history majors—walk heedlessly past the little bygone world behind glass on the wall, where the three buildings of Middlebury College—Painter, Starr, and Old
Chapel—stand figuratively on the snow-white hillside.

Behind the glass, the Rutland Railroad tracks downtown pass the Addison County Fairgrounds, crossing Otter Creek past the Battell Building, Stewart Block, the Sash & Door Mill, the cotton factory, while above the west bank of the creek, along Weybridge Street, rise the professorial edifices of President Kitchel, the Reverend Steele, Professor Brainerd, and Professor R. D. C.
Robbins—scholar of Socrates, the books of Moses, the Christian epistles, who would have thoroughly enjoyed meeting His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.

The population of a table upstairs in the Davis Family Library’s Quiet Study Area, judging by an unscientific poll of textbooks and scrawls on yellow pads and spiral notebooks, seems to be running neck and neck between budding biologists and early economists, although the outcome is skewed by the presence of a patient philosopher.

Several yards away is one of two high-tech soundproofed cell-phone booths installed on opposite ends of the Quiet Study Area, northeast to southwest corners, a response in 2010 to widespread complaints about cell-phone use. The tall black tube with sliding glass door would accommodate a superhero’s costume change. But at this early Thursday-morning hour, no peril looms but the ticking of a clock and the reality of finals and deadlines, and these quiet students of Middlebury College are on their own, and what’s more, they will survive.


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