Elitism isn’t enough: You have to act on it

Much as I trust in Yale’s exceptionalism, it’s possible to let our elitism get away from us. Maybe it’s because we can spend our time dropping cash bets on which classmate will end up in Congress (my money’s on the kid with “senator” in his AIM screen name) or which one will inspire us to form Lanman-Wright for Truth to educate the voting public about how he rolled naked down the stairs. Or maybe it’s because we can pound beers at a naked party, as we’re clearly unbound by traditional human mores regarding “exposure” or “decency” or “forget decency, she looks killer.”

Whatever the reason, it’s sometimes difficult not to sniff at our contemporaries at schools that are merely good, students who don’t have electronic card access to manicured courtyards and who aren’t preternaturally confident that they’ll be captains of industry within 15 or 20 years, max. Speaking from my experience at NCWA Regionals last weekend, though, nothing brings you down to earth quite like a Bentley kid smashing your face into a wrestling mat.

Yale is, embarrassingly, the only Ivy besides Dartmouth to lack an NCAA varsity wrestling team. Instead, our club team participates in the NCWA, the National Collegiate Wrestling Association, which includes club programs at four-year colleges, some PG programs, and teams at two-year community colleges or technical schools. Far from the beer-padded college kids I’d expected before my freshman season, the competition is for real: They’re not wrestling to reminisce fondly about winning in high school, they’re wrestling to win now.

We have a generous alumni endowment that covers our entrance fees and travel, and we certainly have fewer stars and tribal squiggles tattooed on us — or, in one skinny kid’s case, massive family crests across our chests. But once I’m on the mat, my confident air of entitlement and fashionable political convictions won’t convince the other guy I ought to win. The only way I’ll take him is with practice, conditioning and, if he likes to smash his forehead into my grill, being a tough bastard and giving it back. Sometimes I win, and I’m allowed to walk around with my singlet half-down like a hotshot — and sometimes I don’t, and I’ve got to catch my breath and reflect on how that Williamson Tech kid tore me down to the ground.

Standing in the medal ceremony next to the Valley Forge Military College guy who’d beaten me in the consolation bracket semi-finals, I asked him what branch of the service he and his teammates were going into. He said he had a teammate going into the Marines and a few more joining the Army, but he wasn’t signing up for any of them — he’d failed out of his last school and figured Valley Forge would look good when he transferred. It would’ve been easy then to resort to facile elitism, to convince myself that, while I might’ve lost to him by a major decision, I would be his boss’s boss. But, despite my conviction that I was a real world-beater, when it was just me and Valley Forge’s Mike Morrin on Sunday, he won.

It’s humbling. And it’s a reminder not to believe your own publicity, no matter how comforting or validating it is to walk around like an ivy-laureled god-king on an inexorable path to glory, respect and women. (Or men, for the other two-thirds of the campus.) I could say that I had higher board scores than Morrin, but he was the better wrestler, and he proved it. And maybe wrestling prowess is just a measure of your inclination to thuggery — or maybe it demonstrates self-discipline and focus. Just like how supposedly intelligence- and aptitude-measuring standardized tests might only show how sweet you are at taking tests.

It’s easy to think we can discount our contemporaries at Northampton Community College or Valley Forge, or even Bentley or Syracuse, as non-factors. But to succeed after school, we have to demonstrate genuine leadership above and beyond test scores. When only two of 21 candidates for president attended an Ivy League school as undergraduates and two more were in Ivy graduate programs (thanks, Ivygate), we need to understand that we’re eventually going to go head-to-head with these kids, and it’s going to be as equals. If they drive their skulls into you and bully you out of the ring (metaphorically, probably), and you aren’t hard enough to drill back, you’re going to lose. So, you think you were born to lead, instead of ending up an exceptionally well-qualified subordinate? You think you’re exceptional? Then prove it.

Sam Heller is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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