the dorm room menagerie

brown’s stuffed study buddies

At Reichenau Abbey in the ninth century, a monk who ought to have been transcribing a Latin primer stopped to flex his aching fingers. His eyes bleared when he looked down at the page of hymns and verb tables. “Enough of this!” he thought to himself. “I was made for higher work than rote transcription and scribo, scribis, scribit. I shall compose a poem about my white cat.” And so he did. Right in the margin of the primer manuscript. In precisely metered, rhyming medieval Irish.

I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.*

How pithily the unnamed monk encapsulates the ideal life of the felinophile scholar. For seven more stanzas he goes on rhyming about the two of them: how each pursues his own life’s work, two masters of their crafts, companionable in quiet diligence.

Even today, cats are the perfect comrades for pulling all-nighters. They’ll bounce on your keyboard, deleting that vapid introductory paragraph. They’ll lick the Ben & Jerry’s from your bowl so you can focus on typing. They’ll curl up in your lap, purring your worries away.

When anxiety strikes, I can always call my mother, but sometimes what I really need is a way to dial our cat Mittens into my lap. Her presence extinguishes my worries almost instantaneously. Unlike a conversation with mom, Mittens works on a purely physical level to counteract the petrifying somatic symptoms of anxiety. The resonant frequencies of her purr, the rhythm of her paws kneading my leg, and the mass of this overweight feline sinking into me—these three elements compound to produce the perfect antidote to anxiety.

While no cat, no matter how fat, could ever fill the place of Mittens on my lap, there is something inexplicably rejuvenating about burying my face in the fur of any tolerant four-footed friend. Fortunately Brown provides on-campus programs like Heavy Petting and the recently launched Animal Assisted Therapy Program, offering students that irreplaceable nose-to-nose nuzzle time and maybe even a lick on the cheek.

However, the bitter fact remains that dorm regulations and most off-campus leases ban housecats and furry friends of all species (with the exception of service animals) from our scholarly lives. No doubt the 9th century monk of Reichenau would have some snippy rhymes for ResLife.

So in the absence of living, breathing, barking, purring companions to accompany us on long nights of study, we adopt the stuffed species.

When the words I need to write my thesis skitter away into the corners of the room, hiding out amongst the dust buffalos under the sofa, I scoop up my other cat, the stuffed calico, and sit her down between me and the laptop. I call her Queen Medb (Maeve), after the battle queen of Old Irish lore. Her calico faux-fur is softer than dandelion-down. As I scratch her behind the ears, deadline fears disappear and the shy words crawl out of the corners. She’s no Mittens, but the weight of her beanbag belly is familiar enough to synthesize the Mittens-effect. With Medb in my arms, I can write again.

“They’re moral support when I’m doing homework,” said Emily, one of the students I interviewed for this article one Saturday afternoon in the Ratty. Emily has four stuffed friends in her dorm room. “Most people I know brought a stuffed animal with them. It’s kind of an important thing.”

Antonia’s bed is home to a whole menagerie. “I have two bunnies, a polar bear, and two bears.” She laughs. “I’m like a little kid.” But the animals aren’t just there for cuddles. Each is a memento from someone special: her mother, her sister, a close friend.

“It reminds me of home and family,” said Shiying of her bear. “All the stuff I had back in China.” Although she has several stuffed animals at home, only one could come with her to Brown. “It was my favorite at home, so I brought it here.”

But for other students, memories of home and family can’t be tied in the bow around a stuffed bear’s neck. “I’m from rural Arizona. I’m Navajo, and the way I was raised, I didn’t really have that sort of stuff,” explains Tyler. “I only lived with my dad mainly. He’s more like the person that hauls wood, and chops stuff. Outdoorsman, I would say. So I didn’t have that stuff much.”

Then again, some stuffed animals aren’t here as mementos of childhood or moral support. Some stuffed animals have their own reasons for existing. Meet Noah’s giraffe. His name is Professor Giraffe and “he teaches philosophy.” When Noah and Professor Giraffe hang out, Noah likes to “put sweaters on him.”

A giraffe in a sweater
What could be better

Perhaps this is how the monk of Reichenau would begin the sequel to Pangur Bán if he were still rhyming away in his scriptorium today.

*Translation by Robin Flower