Room 259, 65 West 11th Street

Noah Smolin

At its best the lights are off as daylight pours in from 11th Street through a wall of glass to illuminate two bulletin boards and a blackboard, which contrast with the excessive whiteness of the surrounding tables, chairs, and remaining three walls. The room, with its hard linoleum, is angular, flat, and too clean, but the harsh blankness is easily unnoticeable and in fact the perfect complement to the dynamic fourth wall—glass, surely, but also the city itself, its colors in constant flux. At the floor a row of four hinged windows hides behind chairs. A single vertical divide between the two larger windows serves as the sole reminder of the materiality of the glass, which, though the room sits only on the second floor, transforms it (if one remains long enough) into something of a temporary cave if not a treehouse in the greener months. Perpendicular to the blackboard, the marked symmetry of the wall of windows suggests an intentional screen or canvas, and outside two plain stone pillars frame the spectacle for the day: familiar dog-walkers, for example, or else an empty street following the first snowfall of the season, excitement at which, having come from southern California, suffices to remind me where I am. And if one is fortunate enough to remain for a second semester, one witnesses the rapid return of ginkgo leaves and longer days, which is to say that the wall of glass—that imperceptible boundary between school and city whereby our campus becomes so huge—also provides for a certain fluidity of experience as, a semester later when the light in late spring prompts one to recall an important discussion from a similar day in early autumn, it forces one to reflect on what one is doing and what one has accomplished.

If one never has class in Room 259, one must still encounter it outside as the building’s awkward façade reveals on the second floor, behind the same pillars and beneath the canopy of the floors above, something of an unconventional clerestory too low to the ground of a strange temple whose windows declare (somehow modestly) that here there is nothing to hide: security guards notwithstanding, the place is open to all, if only by virtue of the fact that sounds or smoke or early passersby on the street participate for a moment by their curious glances in the discussion developing above. All this does not come so easily in basement closet classrooms. But in Room 259, even when a more beautiful day coincides with a less beautiful lesson, daydreams about leaving class and being elsewhere dissolve with the unavoidable understanding that, by engaging in class on any day, being in New York is evidently what I am doing, to such an extent that when class ends, often it seems most sensible to stay in the room. And so just as the weather on waking affects one’s attitude toward the rest of one’s day, and though the perfect space can do nothing for the indifferent student, the classroom conditions the course of discussion, in the same way that the insufferable basement classroom by its stuffiness puts students to sleep, in the same way also that even the most beautiful empty room relies on a full class to deliver it from its dormancy.

If all this seems obvious, then perhaps the primary problem here is that we let the worst classrooms happen. But if it is unrealistic to have windows everywhere, then why is it that we don’t celebrate enough the magnificence of Room 259, the windows we do have, too rare?

What do we lose when we forget to appreciate Room 259?

When students are not looking out the window, what does the dialogue between city and classroom do for an active discussion?

And is there ever a good reason—during the day, at least—to turn on the lights?