Jacobs: My blue haven, at last

What is gray and blue and a senior and freshman at the same time?

This Eli Whitney student at Yale.

I’m 58 years old and a freshman in Timothy Dwight College. In my day job, I’m president and the chief executive officer of a $100-million independent book publishing firm in New York City. Each Wednesday, I come to New Haven to participate in two seminars — “Shakespeare and the Canon: Histories, Comedies, and Poems” and “Rivers: Nature and Politics” with Sterling professors Harold Bloom and James Scott, respectively.

It’s a funny life but, as I read in a manuscript of a forthcoming book on eels by Yale’s James Prosek citing his River Weir builder friend Ray Turner in a fractured version of the Tao, “It’s not the journey, it’s the road.”

The road that brought me to Yale stretches back almost 40 years to my initial college experience in the late 1960s and early 1970s. After dropping out during the second semester of my second college, I thought I’d take some time off to “get my head together” and return after a year or so.

Life intruded and, inexorably, I got jobs, then work, then a career in books. I began in California with the Oakland Public Library and eventually moved to a book distributor in ’70s Berkeley, then to Seattle to be a sales rep and travel the beautiful territories of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. “I will drive no more forever,” my friends and I joked, in the footsteps of Chief Joseph, as we cruised down the road.

I came to New York in 1984 and made my way through the ranks at Penguin ending up as president of a division before I was 40. By then I was married — with a young son and a daughter on the way. My lack of a college degree didn’t hinder me as I moved to two other jobs with big publishers. That’s not to say that I hadn’t tasted failure; I have been dismissed from a couple of places where, in my view, I’d helped my bosses succeed. But it was the road I was on.

My work and career provided me with an on-the-job education not only in books and business but also in people and power, management and change. But there was always a lingering sense of both unfinished business and an opportunity missed. A few years ago, I began making a list at the beginning of each year of the goals I wanted to try and accomplish. This college-degree thing inched it’s way higher on my list of priorities, creeping into the top five, then the top three. Those two kids, now 20 and 16, were just ahead of me in college or just behind and my wife, a novelist, had gone back a few years ago for her MFA. Last February my father died, and on the way back from dealing with the aftermath of his death in Florida, I saw an advertisement in The New Yorker for the Eli Whitney Students Program.

I came home and told my wife I was going to apply. My father’s death — he was 89 and had never finished high school — solidified a real sense that time was passing and the “if not now, when” question had to be dealt with directly. I dug up my transcripts from high school and the two colleges from way back when, filled out an application and a statement of purpose clarifying why I wanted to attend Yale (its rigor and standards, I said) and solicited letters of recommendation from publishing colleagues.

Asking those mentors and peers was a kind of “coming out” for me. I hadn’t (really) hidden the fact that I was a dropout, but I hadn’t trumpeted it either. Approaching people I admired and respected to help me get admitted to one of America’s most prestigious universities, after I’d already attained a level of success, was a liberating experience.

It gave me the opportunity to talk openly about my own path and, more importantly, helped crystallize for me the real reasons I wanted to come back to school. By then, firmly in my middle age, getting a degree wasn’t about getting a better or higher paying or more satisfying job. Instead I was going back to pursue that which I’d foregone for so long; to satisfy a real desire to explore, to inquire, to have teachers, to try and figure things out rather than be expected to know them already and to meander again. I was going back now because this was my road and I still had enough cognition and just about enough energy to juggle my life, my work and school along its way.

So, here’s what I’ve noticed after the 10 weeks or so into this adventure as a freshman at 58. As I’ve told anyone who’ll listen, Yale is amazing. A Disneyland for Brainiacs, as I (only half jokingly) describe it. I have new and wonderful friends, a big, wondrous, varied, variegated Blue Book, a road unto itself waiting to be explored. Dean John Loge, who is my academic advisor and with whom I am crazy in love, writes news and notes every Sunday night and sends them to me and the other TD’ers. In one, he talked about advice he sought about the challenging and time consuming task of building a wooden boat. He went to a symposium on boat building at which the writer and avid boat builder John Gardner was speaking. When asked by an attendee what was the best advice he could give about building boats, he simply stated, “Start.”

Michael Jacobs is an Eli Whitney student in Timothy Dwight College.

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