Headphones. I need headphones.
Normally, I have no use for headphones at work. Headphones are useless as a college librarian, because at any moment a student or professor may come up to you unexpectedly and need assistance. It does not bode well to be obliviously listening to music while working on your computer. Also, I feel that headphones make me look younger than I already am.
Right now, I would give anything to have a pair of headphones. It is too early to go lunch, so I can’t go over and buy a pair at the college bookstore. Unless…
I go into the student work area and look around for office supplies that are in need of being replaced. Unfortunately, I’m very good at keeping everything well stocked. I am at a loss. I guess I’ll just have to feign a coffee run. But that means I need to ask everyone else if they want coffee.
I look around the library to see if there’s any students that look familiar. Brittany is lingering in the periodical section and I can see a pair of bright pink ear buds dangling out of her messenger bag.
I can’t exactly seize the ear buds for official library business, but I can try to capitalize on her need to kiss up to authority figures.
“Thank you again for keeping track of everyone’s participation points. That was very thoughtful.”
“My pleasure, Ms. Watson.”
“I’ll be sure to tell Professor Birch what a help you were in class today.”
Her face lights up.
“Thank you, Ms. Watson!”
“Absolutely. Are those your ear buds?” I say, casually pointing to the headphones almost touching the carpet. I should have just walked by and grabbed them. She probably wouldn’t have even noticed. This is an idiotic question. Of course, they’re her goddamn ear buds.
“Yes, they are.” She looks up at me, confused.
“Would you mind if I borrowed them? I have some Norwegian language tapes I’m cataloguing for the room upstairs and I left mine at home. I would only need them for half an hour.”
She jumps up with kangaroo-like vigor and hands them to me.
“Keep them for as long as you need. I have a research project that I’ll be working on here all afternoon.”
“Thanks, Brittany, I appreciate it.”
I want to run to my office, but I instead casually walk away at a moderately slow pace, taking time to pretend to straighten magazines that need no straightening.
When I get to my office, I put the CD in my laptop and plug the headphones to the jack.
The computer takes a while to recognize the CD, but finally, an untitled track list appears. I eagerly push play.
It’s love letters. Love letters read out loud. None of them are written to Linda, specifically, but all the tracks are love letters written by famous men. Beethoven, Voltaire, John Adams, Vincent Van Gogh, Dylan Thomas, Mozart, Napoleon…
There’s only one problem. Anders isn’t reading the letters. The voice is masculine and somewhat familiar, but definitely not Anders. The initial “A” belongs to another man. I would assume the man reading the letters, but who really knows? I’m no Nancy Drew, but damn, this is entertaining and I feel compelled to get to the bottom of it.
I return the pop quizzes, class roster, discussion note and the CD to their respective places in Linda’s desk.
Next, I walk over to Brittany to return her hot pink ear buds.
She is buried in periodicals. She has staked the territory of the large table with books by Gloria Steinem, Betty Freidan, and newer feminist literature like ManifestA and Bitch magazine. I can’t help myself. I need to know what she’s working on.
“Here are your ear buds, thanks for letting me borrow them.”
She looks up absentmindedly, takes them, nods and goes back to her religious practice of taking notes.
“I don’t want to interrupt you, Brittany, but may I ask what project this research is for?”
She looks up and her eyes are anxious.
“Um, it’s for a Women’s Studies class. I’m supposed to give a speech forming my own opinion about feminism. It’s just–I’m having a hard time getting through all the theory.” She motions the barricade of books and magazines that surrounds her.
“Well, it sounds like a subjective prompt—do you think you need all of this outside source material?”
“I just really want it to be right. You know? I thought it was going to be more of a women’s history class, I didn’t realize how much of myself I was going to have to put into it. And this speech is worth 20% of the class grade. It’s our final. I’ve never had to give a speech for a final before. I’m a great test taker, but this is all—foreign to me.”
“You look like you need a break. Can I take you to lunch? We can go downtown and get off-campus for a while.”
She looks around at the stacks of books, incredulously.
“I’ll ask the research librarian at the desk to watch your work. It will be waiting for you when you get back.”
“Okay…yes, I think it might be good to have a break.”
I don’t know the exact reason I’ve asked her to join me for lunch, but it’s most likely because I see pieces of my college self in her. It’s true that I always just missed the cut for honors classes, but I had worried my way through many a syllabus, endeavoring for absolute perfection and coming up short. A- instead of A. B+ instead of A-. It wasn’t until grad school that I realized that my self-worth was not inextricably intertwined with the grades I received.
We get into my car and drive to downtown Decorah. It is a cool, crisp day, and I decide we should warm ourselves at Hart’s Teas and Tarts. I find street parking fairly close and soon we are ensconced in pink wallpaper and embroidered tablecloths.
Brittany takes this place in.
“I’ve never been in here before.”
“My mother would take me here when she came to visit. It’s small, but the food is good, and I like that there is a kind of no-boys-allowed atmosphere about it.”
Brittany smiles wryly.
“Yes, definitely. It is charming.”
We share a pot of Russian Caravan tea. It has the essence of a smoky Earl Grey and I always imagine Boris and Natasha sipping cups of it on their way to undo Rocky and Bullwinkle.
I try to keep the conversation light. My main goal is to distract her from the task at hand. Then, if I’m feeling particularly brave, I might try to sneak in a bit of an empowerment/pep talk. I haven’t yet decided.
We both get the chicken salad croissant with a side salad. Brittany seems relieved to be in a neutral location, uninhibited by classmates or assignments. She eats her food with gratitude.
I wonder if she might be able to help me figure out who “A” not Anders is.
I tread lightly.
“So, Brittany, does Linda—Professor Birch ever have guest lecturers to class?”
“Not really, why do you ask?”
“Just wondering. I’m considering teaching a section of Paideia next year—I know the syllabus is pretty rigid, but I was hoping there would be some freedom for each professor.”
“Well, Professor Birch pretty much sticks to the syllabus. We haven’t had any guest lecturers.”
She starts to giggle.
“I’m sorry—it’s just that there’s this janitor who always seems to be in the classroom when we are and I found that funny. He could be a guest lecturer, if he had anything worth saying, I guess. You would think that they would rearrange his schedule so that he wouldn’t be in there during a class.”
Hm. Interesting. My fingers twitch with the expectation of looking up all janitorial staff in the campus database when we get back to the library.
“Do you have any advise for me?”
“About what, Brittany?”
“On the speech. I’m at a loss for how to approach it.”
“I would say just be yourself. You have all the theory in your head—I’m sure if the final was an exam, you wouldn’t be as worried. I would focus on the theories that either resonate the most or least with you and use those as catalysts. You can structure it like you would a paper, just more stripped down. And I’m sure it would be impressive if you could memorize it. And don’t forget to have fun and let the class see your personality come through. You’d be surprised how much of being a good public speaker is not what you say but how you choose to say it. I’d be happy to listen to it before you present, if you think that would be helpful. And if not me, I would suggest finding a friend you trust or classmate to listen to it before you present.”
Wow, look at me giving good advice!
Brittany seems heartened.
“Thanks for the advice. And for lunch. What a crazy day, right, Ms—Professor Watson?”
We both grin and I flag down the waitress to order dessert.