I went back to NUS yesterday after a gap of 17 years. Well, that’s not quite accurate. In between I have been back there for various talks and activities. But yesterday I stepped into the campus as a learner once again. I haven’t joined any formal programme yet, but I did finally get round to applying for and picking up my library card, and I spent a wonderful afternoon in the silence of the library. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack and start at a more appropriate point.
My trip to NUS was mainly to meet a wonderfully generous professor who had no compunctions about giving up some of her precious time to chat with me about my work, and her department. We said we would meet for lunch, but since I am on a diet, and can only eat particular foods at particular times, I watched her eat while we chatted in the arts canteen. What memories came back to me as I sat there waiting for her. I spent so much time in the canteen that you might be forgiven for wondering how I ever got any work done at all. I managed to do the work somehow, but there were some wonderful we-are-the-ones-who-are-going-to-change-the-world sorts of conversations that only sheltered young people can have who have never really faced any hardships to speak of apart from piles of homework and parental over-supervision.
And now I am going too far back and must fast-forward my narrative a little. So after the professor and I left the canteen she took me to her office, showing me the rest of her department along the way. We chatted some more, and I like to think that she was as excited as I was about all the things we have in common. Her office was neat and tidy- very different than my father’s used to be when he was teaching there. The science offices had a sink in each (for private experiments?) and my father used to pile documents in that sink as well once all the other surfaces were taken up. Of course, at that time, not as many documents were digitized as they are now, so hard copies were de rigeur.
Must… focus… you see how the present is inextricably linked with the past whenever we retrace our footsteps? So ANYWAY I went to the library. It is so student-friendly now! There is a huge area for students to sit with their computers, and a separate glassed-off section with sofas and vending machines (I kid you not!). What a pampered bunch the NUS students are nowadays- it’s statements like this that give my age away!
But once I had picked up my library card a problem became apparent. Where, I wondered, were the books? I saw no huge spiral staircase in the centre of the main floor, no signs pointing me towards the books. Was I going to have to walk up to someone and make a complete fool of myself by asking, “Erm- excuse me, but where can I find some books- in your library?” I checked out every corner and finally found a staircase that had not been visible from the centre of the main floor. There, one floor down, was a gloriously silent reading room, with signs everywhere reminding students to be quiet. In another glassed-off section were the books- rows upon rows of the fabulous things, looking very much like the hall in which the prophecies were kept in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. And get this- even among these book shelves there was a space behind another thick layer of glass, for students who wished to speak on their cellphones! I must say the library has done everything it can to ensure that students don’t make noise in the reading areas- why would they need to when they have so many spaces to chill out?
I am not going to bore everyone with a description of the raptures I went into as I browsed to my heart’s content. Suffice it to say that 3 hours flashed by and it was time for me to leave. As I walked out, the memories came back again. The forum where I used to meet up with my friends. The little cafe off at the side of the bookshop where I used to meet my then-boyfriend (now-husband) when everyone had left for the evening. It was like it had been before and yet it was different. I was older and wiser. I knew not a soul- before, there would have been at least 5 people to wave to. It might have been lonely, yet it was strangely liberating.
I have learned so many things since I was last a student at NUS. I have learned that other people’s opinions matter. I have learned that the world cannot be changed by sweeping statements. I have learned that compassion is more important than intelligence. And I have learned (because someone pointed it out to me) that the only reason the library was so quiet that day was because it was the first day of term and no one had any homework to do!