When I took “Basic Drawing” freshman year — my first and last foray into art at Yale — I found it to be like every other art class I’ve taken.
But there was one negligible difference. This was a college art course. And in college, you get to draw nude models.
After an introductory week of sketching our shoes, our professor brought in the model: a middle-aged fellow named Frank. He was bald and had the muscle tone of a ripe eggplant.
Each day Frank would disrobe and sprawl on a pile of cushions in the middle of the classroom, like some sort of pale, hairy Egyptian empress. After five minutes he’d complain that the room was chilly; my professor would produce a rickety-sounding space heater and position it next to him.
Frank would then fall asleep for the rest of the period — except, of course, for the three minutes when I was obliged to sketch his private parts. At this point he would wake up and stare at me. I always tried to draw as fast as I could — like Indiana Jones dashing through a booby-trapped temple — but it was as if his groin was equipped with a tiny sensor that unfailingly detected my gaze.
I almost chose to take more courses in the Art Department — especially after I ran into Frank and his knowing smile at the gym several times — but it seemed that if I wanted to keep it up, I’d have to devote all my energy to art. I didn’t have the time to do it well, so I decided not to bother at all.
Yale is not a place to dabble. It is a place to have one or two “things” that you do superbly and all the time. Whatever your academic or extracurricular focus, be prepared to make it your life.
In my case, poor Frank was just another casualty of the Yale incapacity to relax and do something half-speed.
I see evidence of this mindset all around me. I have one friend whose cello leans unused against his dresser, put out to pasture ever since he transformed into an a cappella maniac. Another was once a math whiz and the star of his high school’s barber shop quartet (imagine all the chicks he got!), but he dropped it all to become a neurotic improv comedian.
I’m sure that Frank, too, was forced to put some of his own talents on the back burner when he came to Yale and donated his body to art. Perhaps he was once the star of an all-boys grammar school choir that toured the Midwest Rotary Club circuit at Christmas time.
We rationalize our abandonment of once-dear interests by pleading a lack of free time and declaring that if we’re going to do something at all, we want to have the energy and talent to do it right. These reasons sound noble enough.
Or is the truth that we’re just afraid of a little failure?
In theory, we are encouraged to take academic risks thanks to Yale’s generous Credit/D/Fail option. Credit/D/Fail is supposed to encourage us to experiment with disciplines we’ve never tried or take a class just for fun and devote most of our energy elsewhere.
When I first heard about the Credit/D/Fail option at Bulldog Days, it sounded terrific. Maybe when I got here, I thought, I’d take something really off the wall. Maybe something involving a calculator.
What they didn’t tell me is that 94 percent of the Blue Book listings are labeled “NO, Absolutely NO Credit/D/Fail.” And that means, to most of us, you won’t get an A, so don’t take it. In academics as well as after school, the mindset is: if you’re not planning to work yourself into the ground and achieve perfect excellence, don’t do it. You can’t merely take your classes; you have to conquer them.
I’m not blaming the Yale administration for our all-or-nothing attitudes. I only blame them for their failure to re-stencil our sidewalks with last year’s whimsical bulldog paw prints.
This problem, on the other hand, is our own fault.
Last semester, I tried to fight it. I signed up for a non-Credit/D/Fail seminar. I was completely unprepared — for the material and for my surly Eastern European grad student classmates — but I vowed simply to enjoy the class. I also went to the freshman bazaar and picked up a flyer for one of Yale’s three dozen literary journals, intending to go to the meetings only as often as I felt like it.
Operation Slack Off was a dismal failure. I didn’t have the time or the talent to triumph in the class or the journal, and I wound up feeling resentful and guilty.
I’d suggest a solution, except there is none. Nor should there be.
Our perfectionist, obsessive attitudes got us into Yale. They drive our experiences here and they are the engines that will propel us towards glorious, lucrative futures. So what if this means we grow up to be walking nerve endings with high blood pressure who sign up our 3-year-olds for viola lessons on Tuesdays and Lil’ Hands On Science Westinghouse prep courses on Thursdays.
We should be grateful that Mother Yale is molding us into efficient achieving machines. After all, failure is bad. Failure means you are worthless, lazy and probably ugly too.
One just hopes these four frenzied years don’t force us to forget completely the instruments and sports we used to play or the pastimes we used to pursue — just for kicks.
I guess I’m lucky. I won’t be forgetting my art class anytime soon. Years of shock therapy wouldn’t be enough to erase the searing mental images of Frank in all his pasty naked glory.
Molly Worthen is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her columns appear on alternate Tuesdays.