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The writing on the wall (of Hesburgh Library)

| Wednesday, October 13, 2021

If the last few weeks have taught me anything about Notre Dame culture and student life, it is that anonymous speech readily embraced by the student body. In particular, much discussion has revolved around the use, and misuse, of Yik Yak, the anonymous social media platform. Then just last week, there were “free speech boards” in both North and South Dining Halls where students could write whatever they wanted with a Sharpie on a big white poster board no bigger than 15 square feet.

I understand the excitement and buzz around such opportunities for anonymous speech, but I think that the best mode of anonymous speech at Notre Dame is also the original one: the carved-out messages on the wooden desks and on the walls of Hesburgh Library. If you have ever studied at a desk above the second floor of the library, you know exactly what I am referring to. Initials, quotes, dates and more are written in black Sharpie or carved into the wooden desks.

I tend to circulate between about five different desks that tend to be my favorites, and I am always curious to see what has been added or edited since my last visit. But for the past week, I decided to venture out of my “comfort zone” and discover new messages left on other walls and desks. In order to do so, I adopted a “game” for every time I get into the elevator. Rather than choosing what floor to go to myself, I go to whatever floor the accompanying student in the elevator has chosen to go to. (Interestingly, most students choose to go to the eighth, 10th or 11th floors).

One elevator trip took me to the 13th floor, leading me to accidentally interrupting a private tour of Father Hesburgh’s office. The tour group embraced me with open arms and invited me to join. For the next hour, I walked around his office, took pictures and heard stories about Father Hesburgh from one of his personal friends.

On other ventures, I was led to several different floors and desks, and decided to start writing down and taking pictures of what I discovered. One wooden desk tucked in the corner of the eighth floor bears the message “Build your brand as you perfect your craft.” Nearby, someone has written their to-do list: an ethics paper, an accounting project, a finance exam, a stats exam and about five other papers and exams. (Unfortunately, only the first three assignments were checked off as completed.) Etched into another desk on the same floor is “The wolf on top of the hill is never as hungry as the wolf climbing up the hill.” Another desk bears the message: “I understand indecision, but I don’t care if I get behind. People living in competition. All I want is to have my peace of mind.” (I liked the rhyming here and soon discovered that this wasn’t an original poem and rather was correctly identified by someone else as a line from the song “Peace/peace of mind” by the American rock band Boston.) Nearly every desk bears some variations of initials or two sets of initials written together with a heart around them. Every so often, I found a pair of initials in which one set was crossed out and replaced with another, which made me a little sad. 

What I have found to be particularly interesting about these writings is that there is rarely a message or note that is left alone. Most of the scribbles seem to spark a reaction, varying from a follow up note to a complete scribble over it. I also quickly came to realize that I enjoy finding these messages more than I enjoy scrolling through posts on Yik Yak. I would even go as far as to say that I think the messages on the desks are even more valuable. Leaving a message at Hesburgh Library, particularly one that is physically carved into a desk, requires a significant amount of effort and determination. Posts on Yik Yak, on the other hand, require no more physical effort than to type and submit. I think it is fair to say that you must feel very strongly that your message is worth sharing if you are willing to take the effort and time to carve out a message on a wooden desk.

You may dismiss my perspective as naïve and gawk at my willingness to romanticize what may be nothing more than college students procrastinating their work and trying to find an outlet for their stress. (Not to mention that these carvings into these wooden desks are vandalism and property damage, but that is beside the point.) 

There is some truth to that, but I tend to believe that there is a deeper message that these carvings, or lack thereof, reveal. With the exception of the newer desks on the 10th floor, Father Hesburgh’s desk was the only desk I found that lacked the carvings of a college student. I did not need to see any messages on his desk, however, to know that there was something special about that desk and the person that sat there.

I believe that in the spirit of Father Hesburgh himself, every Notre Dame student knows that they have words worth sharing and an education worth studying for, because they have something good to contribute to not only this University, but to the world. If nothing else, the writing on the desks of Hesburgh Library is a testament to that.

Claire Miller is a junior majoring in political science, with a minor in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. She is a proud resident of Flaherty Hall and the state of Texas. She can be reached at [email protected] over email.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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