We’re buoyed through Yale by questions. Freshman year, the big question is classes. “Intro Micro” or a freshman seminar on paper cutting? English 120 or “Intro Psych,” or both? Prereqs or survey courses? Premed or DS? It’s like walking into Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and having no idea what to eat, but having only so much stomach space to cram it all into. What will taste good? What will make me strong and healthy? The answer commonly offered: Don’t worry too much about your classes; it doesn’t matter what you take freshman year. Try a lot of things and take something funky. The conversation probably turns to extracurriculars, which are a much more serious affair.
We come out of our first year rubbing our stomachs, either purring from satisfaction or feeling kind of queasy. We’ve likely eaten some things we don’t want to put down our gullets again, and with the tastes still on our tongues, we as sophomores turn to the next big question: majors. Why doesn’t Yale have minors? Can I triple major? Does my major determine my career? How much will it define me? What exactly is Global Affairs? And eventually you wander into the chocolate or chewing gum or chive department. But when you ask others which way to wander, they commonly answer: Don’t worry too much about your major; it doesn’t dictate what you do in the long term. Don’t force yourself into something because you think it’s what you should be doing. Do you, and the major will follow.
Maybe you pace between the chocolate and chive departments for a while. Chocolate tastes way better, but chives are superior in terms of health. If you end up in chives, you’ll glance longingly at chocolate. If you end up in chocolate, you’ll enviously eye chives. Either way, the next big question starts tugging at your shirt: junior summer. Can I go back to camp counseling or will my future be doomed? Should I secure an internship that will land me a job? Can I really see myself eating these chives forever? We ask, and we’re answered: Don’t worry too much about your summer; take advantage of the unique opportunities Yale offers and try not to annihilate yourself. Take a break from the chocolate factory, but it doesn’t matter whether you go for fruit or Lunchables. As long as you’re tasting something new, whatever you choose will be a valuable experience.
And then you come back for the last time — less excited than you know you once were and less excited than you know you should be at the sight of the Everlasting Gobstoppers. And you face your final question, which feels just as grave and all-determining as each of the first three did when you asked them: What do I do after I graduate? And if you ask adults around you, they’re likely to say: Don’t worry too much about what you do right after you graduate. You can’t predict the future, and often it’s better not to try. Keep an open mind.
But we do worry about our first class, our major, our last college summer, our first year away from Mother Yale. And if none of them really matter, then what does?
In high school, the questions were simple and the answer was easy: you collect the gold stars that will get you into college — maybe even Yale, if you’re lucky. And instinctually, most Yalies remain wired to questions in pursuit of that primal prestige.
When there were no easy answers to my yearly questions, I too often let my mind passively substitute the glitter of prestige in the place of wondering “what matters” at each step along the way. But in the moment that I subdued my inner magpie and stopped gazing at gold stars, it felt like cutting the umbilical cord to a system I’d been attached to for years. It felt like going adrift.
What does matter? I can’t say. But don’t let the answers of others be yours. If you set yourself adrift, I’ve found it’s a lot easier to see the shore.
Tao Tao Holmes is a senior in Branford College. Her column runs on alternating Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.