In her new novel “Americanah,” Chimamanda Adichie GRD ’08 proposes an unorthodox “solution to the problem of race in America” that applies as well to class at Yale: “Romantic love. Not friendship. Not the kind of safe, shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable. But real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved.”
Romantic love, of course, cannot be the remedy for everyone. But it was the entrance into the conversation on socioeconomic class for me, and it continues to upend my understanding of that question years after graduation.
I grew up middle-to-upper-middle class. I didn’t internalize that fact until arriving at Yale; in my northern New Jersey suburb, my family’s two old cars and pool-less backyard had rendered me among the least well-off of my friends. But upon arriving at Yale, I quickly started dating a boy who’d grown up in the lowest income bracket. By his standards, I learned immediately, I was not only middle-class, but something else: “Elite,” he called me. I’d never known anyone to use the term. It still has the sound of his voice in my ears.
The summer after our freshman year, he was accepted to both an unpaid internship and a job at the computer hardware factory where his father worked. I told him to take the internship. He took the job.
That summer — my advice, his decision — epitomized our inability to understand each other throughout our time at Yale, though we cared about each other deeply. We were both to blame. We talked about everything — our family histories, our courses, our friends, our postgraduation plans, our dating histories. We did talk about religion, race, affirmative action and, yes, money. But we didn’t talk about the impact of money on our plans, goals, and even summer internship choices.
Our reticence was partly an effort of kindness, partly of ignorance. I didn’t realize I had to ask; maybe he didn’t realize he had to explain. In more recent years, he’s told me that I wouldn’t have understood. Perhaps I wouldn’t have.
Our relationship, of course, failed.
But in one way, it was a resounding success: Because I cared so intimately about someone from a socioeconomic class so different from my own, stories about class struggle feel like stories about a “me,” not a “them.” Arriving at and rising through Yale is a process, for everyone, of reassessing ourselves — both discretizing the boundaries of self (choosing a major, joining clubs, selecting thesis topics) and opening them wide (“[You are] a part of me, as I am a part of you,” Langston Hughes might say.)
And that’s a process that continues for years after Yale, when I wish I could cast back to my 18-year-old boyfriend and say, “Tell me why,” and to myself and say, “Ask him.” When I wish I could say: If I don’t understand, it’s because I don’t — not because I don’t want to. I can love as much of you as I know, but that’s the limit.
The writer Nathan Englander describes “write what you know,” that ubiquitous adage for aspiring authors, as “empathetic advice.” “If you’ve longed for an Atari 2600,” he says, “… if you have felt that deep longing, that can also be a deep longing for love or for the liberation of your country or to, you know, reach Mars … If you’ve known longing, then you can write longing.”
What he’s describing is the transitive property of human experience: Knowing one person’s story at close emotional range enables us to understand stories that are otherwise foreign. When you step foot onto the Yale campus, the empathetic tool you already have at your disposal is your knowledge of your own story — a valuable place to start, but an insufficient place to end.
So ask more than you think you have to. Tell more than you think you have to. No matter where you fall on the class spectrum, make Yale a place where you learn to articulate questions and interrogate answers, among not only teachers and classmates but also partners and friends. And, when the situation is right, let romantic love be a meaningful space in which to open a conversation neither party is sure they need to have.
Courtney Sender is a 2010 graduate of Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.