At college, break with past sometimes permanent

The death of Yale School of Drama student Pierre-Andre Salim DRA ’09 wasn’t much of a news event for undergraduates, but it was difficult not to notice the 41 comments the News’ story (“Student dies in accident at Yale Rep” 11/26) generated on its Web site. Most of these didn’t come from anyone at Yale, but rather from those who knew him from other periods of his life — members of the theatre community in his home country of Singapore, childhood friends who hadn’t seen him in years — who congregated virtually on the Web page to offer remembrances. And despite a recent decision made by Facebook to shut down the profiles of deceased individuals after a certain amount of time, Salim’s is still up — visited by mourners who have used the “Superpoke!” application to “have a moment of silence for” him.

This sort of online memorial is not uncommon in the modern age, when most people maintain virtual representations of themselves through Facebook and other sites. Since this profile stays up regardless of what happens to the person who created it (unless shut down by site management), it allows friends to express their grief and mourning directly.

But for those of us among the living, the ease with which old friends can access our self-representations online can be just as disconcerting as it is comforting, because the way they remember us isn’t always the way we are — or wish to be. Keeping a Facebook profile up-to-date requires action: removing and adding items to reflect shifts in personality. And the News Feed and Mini-Feed ensure that old friends will be alerted that a change has occurred.

I suspect this may be more difficult for the current freshman class than it has been in previous years; after all, they were allowed to join Facebook well before the end of their high-school careers, and therefore didn’t have the option of a clean slate before arriving at Yale. Everything from going by a different name at college to admitting that “Heart of Darkness” is actually a favorite book is noticed and critiqued by old friends on a wall that new friends can see.

This is only meaningful insofar as college is usually considered a place to break with the past and find oneself. Many students — especially those from public high schools and those outside the West Coast and Northeast — deliberately decide to come to Yale because they have the freedom to change in response to the new opportunities presented to them or to throw off repressive social norms that their hometowns forced upon them. I know I did.

Of course, there are plenty of students here whose high schools are overrepresented within the student body, who couldn’t get away from people they grew up with if they tried. While it’s certainly not true that it’s impossible for these people to change, they certainly don’t have as many opportunities to thoroughly remake themselves. The well-established lifestyle some carry to Yale from private schools in New York and L.A. is appealing, even dazzling, to those from flyover states. I often wonder if the reason that Yale’s mainstream culture seems so upper-class to some isn’t because it reflects most students’ backgrounds, but rather because students who do have these pedigrees offer a pattern that the rest of us — who had no idea of what to expect when we got here — can follow. It’s not that middle-class students are forced to conform; it’s that we’re given the opportunity to become the sophisticates we imagined ourselves to be.

It’s for this reason that Frederick Mocatta’s column “Why Are All The Rich Kids Sitting Together in the Cafe?” (11/29) — another object of continuing interest among visitors to the News’ site — rings false to me. While it’s true that some people can’t do some things sometimes because of money, class at Yale can’t be reduced to spending power. To be honest, most college students try to minimize personal spending: from those who may actually have trust funds to those whose full scholarships give them thousands of dollars a year in pocket money, and everyone in the middle-class doughnut hole in between. Class is also about behavior: the way you introduce yourself, the food you prefer. I know someone who gets teased by his family for eating “snobby food” at Yale, no matter how much he protests that he enjoys his mother’s cooking.

Unlike changing the prices at the Bass Cafe, the subtler markings and pressures of class can’t be changed by University fiat. Nor should they be, necessarily; it’s possible to argue that they’re just as liberating as they are oppressive. But we should be conscious of the changes we’ve made, especially right before spending three weeks at home with family and friends who keep in touch with us largely through Facebook’s News Feed.

Unlike Salim’s profile, we don’t stay frozen in time forever. That means that sometimes, you can’t go home again.

Dara Lind is a junior in Berkeley College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    Full scholarships don't come with thousdands of dollars of spending money.

  • Anonymous

    "students who do have these pedigrees offer a pattern that the rest of us — who had no idea of what to expect when we got here — can follow."

    So true! Why does no one talk about this?

  • Anonymous

    I very much agree.