Warrior Words: Resolving emptiness

The door, wedged tightly behind a yellowing dictionary, opens into a narrow third-floor book closet. The metal shelves, heaped high with language textbooks, cling tightly to the concrete walls while in the back, dim morning light filters through far-off windows.

“Your assignment,” instructs my Senior Service Day supervisor, “is to cart out all of these old Russian textbooks. We haven’t taught that subject in years.” He sweeps the dust off the nearest pile, and coughing slightly, proves his statement to be true. Fanning the air, he retreats back into the high school.

As his coughing disappears around the corner, I stand silently for a moment, gazing at the chaotic jumble of abandoned books before me. Reaching up to the top shelf, I pull down a faded red textbook: Russian Face to Face. I crack open the cover — 1993 — then set the book down in the first box. Rummaging around to the right, I take down A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union, which is emblazoned with the towering onion-domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, and then Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, printed in the original Cyrillic. I can’t decipher the alphabet, but the letters, familiar and yet exotic, strike me with their beauty. Rooting amongst Gogol and Turgenev, I sift through quirky fragments of educational materials -—a Cyrillic McDonald’s menu, a laminated poster of St. Petersburg, a calendar with photographs of Russian art. And yet they, too, must go.

Before long, the shelves are completely empty.

There is something immensely sad about emptiness — and in this case, the replacement of history, language, and beauty by nothing in particular. And as I stand there amongst these abandoned books, I see in the empty shelves a larger story: emptiness is everywhere. At the high school, classrooms once filled with boisterous upperclassmen have fallen silent; hallways once overrun by gregarious seniors are now tame. A quarter of the school’s population has left to go on internship.

And yet, as I step back from the shelves, emptiness must be much more than sadness, for it is also a time for change, potential, and hope. When there is a void, it shall always be filled. These shelves may be stripped of their literature today, but someday they will again creak under the weight of new books. Emptiness is not the final goal — it is a state of transition from fullness to fullness and from one story to the next. Emptiness is the crossroads, where one generation ends and another begins, where everything is placed on pause for just a moment. Emptiness is space that will be filled, a novel that has not yet been written. Emptiness is a classroom waiting to be studied in or a hallway ready to be lived in. Emptiness is the breath before the song — the rest before the next adventure. Emptiness is nothing to be afraid of.

And as I finish loading the last boxes onto the cart, the bell outside the door blares. I wheel the cart into the hallway. Chattering students filter by me, heading off to their next classes — and suddenly, I catch the eye of one of my junior friends as she walks by.

Smiling, she hurries over to my cart — “What are you doing here?!”

I’m taken off guard by her question. “Just volunteering! I’m about to cart these books over to the language teachers’ workroom.”

She laughs, shifting the notebooks in her arms as she surveys the boxes. “It’s just really funny to see you here — I mean, it’s been so empty with all the seniors out of school! It’s kind of sad in a way.”

She glances at the empty shelves just inside the doorway, and then looks back at me.

“But it feels right, too.”

Chase Smith, senior, shared this column with five Wilton High classmates. This is the final Warrior Words column of the school year. It will resume in September.