Writing an etiquette column isn’t the only thing that I do with my time; I also serve tea in my college library one night each week. That’s right, I’m one of two library managers, and I take my job seriously. The students of Jonathan Edwards College — some of them, anyway — depend on me to keep the libraries comfortable, clean and calm. Unfortunately, they have no reason to depend on each other.
My work as library manager is something that I value, but it has illuminated a sad truth: Kids these days just don’t respect each other. They steal books and magazines from the shelves. They carry on loud telephone conversations while their peers try to study. They leave dirty dishes from the dining hall on shelves that my co-manager, Julia, and I have to return to the kitchen a day or two after they’ve been sitting around getting crusty. After two years of this job, I thought that I had seen it all. To my chagrin, I was mistaken.
The JE libraries comprise three separate spaces. One, called Curtis and Curtiss (nobody understands that extra “S”), holds magazines, light reading, and dissertations written by former affiliates of the college. This space is relatively informal. One entryway over and up some stairs is a cavernous space called Lower Taft, which is used for meetings and sometimes events. That’s where we have tea. Upstairs from that is what we refer to as Upper Taft, which is lined with bookshelves, holds reference materials, and is very quiet. Students use Upper Taft at all hours of the day and night to do work that needs to get done.
This Wednesday evening, during prime homework hours, as tea time was winding down, two young men strolled through Lower Taft, disappeared up the stairs to Upper Taft and then lumbered back down about half a minute later. They brushed aside Julia’s kind offer of a cup of tea, and soon left the library. But, lo and behold, again they returned to our little party, this time with something to say.
“Uh, sorry to bother you,” one of them mumbled. I don’t think that he was too sorry. “Are you guys gonna be in here much longer?”
Julia and I eyed each other, slightly baffled. “Well,” she said, “this is the tea that we hold each week in the library. We’ll be done a little after eight. You’re welcome to join us.”
The dudes ignored the offer. As it turned out, the library was about to witness a men’s swim team scavenger hunt that involved 15 teammates running through Lower Taft and up to Upper Taft to receive clues to their next destination. Our new acquaintances informed us of this impending disaster with utter nonchalance and incredible haughtiness.
“You know,” I said, “We can’t really do anything about this now, but in the future any organization that wants to use the library needs to clear it with the master’s office, or at least with Julia and me.” I should have been harder on them.
“Because this is a place where students are working. Upper Taft needs to be quiet.”
“Uh-huh. It’ll just be a few of our teammates, no big deal.”
Right. Before I could respond to this chide, and as the dudes tried to make a quick getaway, they managed to collide into each other as well as our electric tea kettle, knocking it to the ground and spilling hot water on the slick wood floor.
“Sorry,” said one of them as he hastily picked up the now-empty kettle and sloppily returned it to the table. They both ran up the stairs, yammering away.
They were talking so loudly that they didn’t hear me yell after them to come back; they hadn’t cleaned up the water. “It’s a safety hazard!” I shouted after them. I felt like a disciplinarian, but I was proud of myself for transforming my frustration with their bad manners into concern for other people’s safety. The afterthought — “We could get sued!” — was less altruistic. They came back with a mop they must have found in a corner upstairs, pushed the water around on the floor, and left the spot approximately as slippery as ever.
Word on the street is that, a little later that night, about 15 shirtless young men ran through the library, performed their assignment and then were gone. Whether or not they actually disturbed anyone, or spilled things more toxic than water, is, as far as I’m concerned, irrelevant. The real problem here is that they didn’t think to care that those things might happen.
It should be — hopefully, to most, it is — obvious that a library is no location for a free-for-all. An intrusion of the type that I witnessed on Wednesday not only disturbs the peace, as it were, but also intimidates other students, making them feel awkward and as if they are intruding. Of course, it’s really just the opposite.
Etiquette does not demand that everybody sit by firesides sipping tea and eating crumpets. And I am certainly not categorically opposed to shirtless swimmers. But when the unapproved antics of one careless group infringe on the peace and safety of another, the breach of common decency is inexcusable.
Helen Vera is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.