KREISS-TOMKINS: Exclusive friendships

About this time last year, I wasn’t sure what to think. Society tap had begun. I was attempting to make sense of something that didn’t spam panlists or sponsor a booth at the extracurricular bazaar. I wasn’t quite sure what I was trying to make sense of.

I was hardly alone. Freshmen, sophomores and juniors are all more or less in the dark. Even privately, the subject of society can isolate close junior friends as they tiptoe over eggshells of ego and self-worth. Seniors in society have little extrinsic incentive to speak out. Seniors not tapped for society are muzzled for fear of looking bitter. Considered altogether, it’s a coincidence of near complete silence.

I was supposed to be in society this year but no longer am. I’m in the peculiar position of having looked from the outside in (or tried to, through windows that don’t exist) and, briefly, from the inside out.

During junior spring, while society remained mysterious, tap was real. Some of us were getting envelopes, discreetly slipping away for interviews and dinners. Some of us were not. For nearly all of us, if to differing degrees, tap awakened feelings that best belong deep inside Yucca Mountain: jealousy, insecurity, spite.

Tap is ugly. Ugly. Some societies profess to adjudicate achievement and success (often, only as well as Google measures it) and solicit and vet names of the select from society alumni, peers (I’ve received such inquiries) and, for a few, our professors. Far more important — and this very much applies to professedly meritocratic societies — is the deliberation that picks favorites among friends and peers. Ultimately, taps are determined by who happens to know whom, who likes whom, who does not like whom.

Tap leaves a foul aftertaste that requires more than mouthwash to cleanse. Nearly no one likes it, seniors in society included. Yet perhaps, as with college admissions (or FOOT leader or Tour Guide selection), it’s a necessary evil? The product might merit the process?

Yale would not be Yale without admissions. Yet Yale’s value requires selectivity: At Yale, for example, I find seminar discussion far more compelling than I would its equivalent at the University of Alaska. That’s why I chose Yale.

The value of society is relationships. I wonder: Is the process of tap and society required for the product of compelling relationships?

For some, the answer is yes. I have several friends who would describe themselves as quiet, and their takes on their society experiences average “pretty good” (and range from “ugh” to “transformative”). Society facilitates relationships they probably wouldn’t have otherwise sought out. Sadly, ironically, the institution also systematically selects against those for whom it might most benefit.

For others not phobic of Solo cups (unlike me), society can be great, too. It’s a dedicated time and place to challenge oneself and introspect, which has universal value. I know two Yalies who came out to their societies before they did to friends or family. Yale is a safe, supportive place. They had both already spent three years here. Clearly, they found in society camaraderie beyond what they found elsewhere at Yale.

If you strip away your attraction to exclusivity and selectivity and prestige, your curiosity, your need for self-affirmation, your appreciation of being told you’re incredible and wonderful, distinguished and accomplished — if you strip all this away (which is impossible), society is for relationships. Society is to meet new people, to make friends.

But in this aim — admirable from every perspective — there’s an almost tragic quality. To find relationships, to make friends, we submit ourselves to an institution of exquisite grandiosity: interview invitations embossed on Tyco’s finest cardstock, a conceit of secrecy, a protocol of selection and rejection, budgets and dues and endowments, the very real, superfluous physical exclusion of windowless buildings that loom large throughout our campus.

When I was in elementary school, I would make friends by asking if someone wanted to play. To make friends at Yale, I accepted a tap to an institution with a divisive and hurtful enabling process that, once enabled, requires of its members a sometimes extraordinary number of hours each week.

In elementary school and at Yale, I was looking for the same thing — for relationships, for friends. What in the world happened to me between elementary school and now? How is it that in looking to find the most free and organic aspect of life — relationships, friendship — I outsourced myself to an institution? I wonder what nine-year-old me would say to all this. Why can’t we just play?

I imagine George Pierson lived life with a nine-year-old’s spirit and think that his description of Yale as “a company of scholars, a society of friends” rings true because, for the most part, Yalies share that spirit. Subdividing the society of Yale and the natural society of our friends into exclusive subsocieties is strange to everyone — including our parents, including our nine-year-old siblings, including us before we came to Yale — because it’s so different from how we find friends and relationships in life. Different isn’t necessarily bad and exclusion can be useful, but I wonder whether we need this system. While I’ve found my answer, I wish you more than luck in finding yours.

Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at jonathan.kreiss-tomkins@yale.edu.

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