I observe a crucial difference between adults and college students.
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended—William Wordsworth, “Intimations of Immortality”
Sunday night, I leashed the dog and took her upstairs. I had to grade a set of student essays, and the dog, Belle, had to accompany me because of a looming event at our house. My wife would soon host sixty freshmen. It was a holiday mixer for her class and for two others that share the theme of leadership.
“How many?” I’d kept asking. “How many students are coming?”
“Sixty, in three classes. Probably only fifty will come.”
So Belle, on the rug, and I in my leather Laz-E-Boy, heard the freshmen arrive downstairs. The noise of conversation rose up the stairwell, though not the roar that attends an equally large gathering of adults. I’ve hid upstairs for some of those, too, and listened to the happy cheer rising until, to be heard, everyone was screaming. From a slight remove: almost scary.
“Richard!” I heard Kathy call up to me. “Do you want to bring Belle down?” She’d forewarned me of this summoning, a showing of the family dog to the students.
So I ambled down with Belle. And what did my wondering eyes behold in our living room but students everywhere. Mostly they were sitting, which was a feat, given the numbers. Our coach held, oh, about twenty kids. Two big overstuffed chairs somehow held about four—each. Three unseated girls, looking forlorn, approached Belle and began to pet.
I tried to walk the dog around, but Kathy was desperately fetching odd chairs and there weren’t many paths. I had to leap back as Kathy, hair flying, shoved a leather ottoman past me from our study. The three lost girls settled instantly upon it like sparrows on a ledge.
’Tis the season of holiday gatherings and aching backs. For those, like me, who’ve worn out their spines, or who are merely middle-aged, the price of standing can seem high. If not right then, then the next morning. And this is what Kathy had expected, two roomfuls of standing students. Socializing, you know, like adults. She had sensibly allocated two rooms for this, our living room and our dining room. They would stand and talk and nibble on snacks for an hour. Only an hour—they knew this. Eighty adults have done as much.
But, alas, they sat.
From the packed living room, Belle and I made our way into the dining room, which seemed to be a transient space. Liminal, a writer might say. Just a few students, and a couple teachers gasping for air. Most of the room is taken up with the long table that I grew up around; Mom drove to North Carolina fifty years ago to buy it. On the table were urns of hot chocolate and coffee, trays of cookies, and vats of gummy bears.
Beyond lay our sunroom—kind of a cross between an enclosed porch and a freezer—that was packed to the rafters with the rest of the students. “I didn’t have it set up!” Kathy hissed. “They just went in there. I thought they’d socialize. They want to sit.”
In point of fact, they did.
Belle has seen some odd human behavior, no doubt, but I swear she did a double take, kind of like someone coming upon a violent Greyhound bus crash, there at the threshold of the sunroom. We couldn’t enter it beyond a pace. Finally I turned and led her back upstairs.
Now I sit too much, like most adults. If my waistline won’t let me forget that, neither will The New York Times, which runs an article every couple of days on how bad sitting is for us. The latest, on Saturday, upped the ante:
But a closer look at the accumulating research on sitting reveals something more intriguing, and disturbing: the health hazards of sitting for long stretches are significant even for people who are quite active when they’re not sitting down. That point was reiterated recently in two studies, published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine and in Diabetologia, a journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes.
On the treadmill this morning, getting in my thirty minutes of activity before I sit for the rest of the day, I thought about this. But mostly about those students, who are so very active but who have the sense to sit down when they socialize. Or is it fear of each other that makes them sit? The questions only grew. Don’t weary soldiers collapse like this? Does each Age of Man possess, indeed, its wisdom?
“We learned something last night,” I told Kathy when she came down to the basement to say goodbye. “We’ll know next time. But why?”
“I don’t know,” she said above the treadmill’s whir, eager to get on with her day. “They wanted to sit.”
College freshmen. I can almost bring it back. In life somewhere between children, who run everywhere, and adults who when they stand do so as if rooted, they sat.
The older I get, the less I seem to know. So much is unknown, really. And how often do we truly see—and therefore learn—despite our age-barnacled selves? Kathy may be ready to put the past behind her, but not me, not yet, not this time. I’m here to witness, here to tell you. And I can only report what I saw last night with my own eyes.
Those kids, they sat.