Anyone who happened to stroll past the Jonathan Edwards College library last Tuesday night might have wondered at the anxious muffled chatter wafting out into the courtyard. Startled by the spirited boos and cheers, passers-by probably figured we were having the annual JE junior-senior cockfight.
Actually, the cockfight is slated for next week. Last Tuesday night, the library hosted an event much more savage — the rising senior room draw.
Inside, the scene was not unlike the subterranean, smoke-filled cockfight galleries of downtown Manila. My roommates and I arrived late and found a place to stand in a corner of the noisy room. A week of heated exchange on the “oversubscribed senior singles” e-mail list and indignant gossip regarding the uppity group of sophomores going for the JE Sextet had charged the crowd with nervous energy.
As our dean shuffled the nondescript but decisive pack of playing cards, people studied their rooming sheets, crumpled and scribbled with rankings, calculated odds and clipping permutations. A boy I did not know — one of the sallow-faced, Minesweeper-playing hermits we see only on this fateful night each year — leaned over and asked which room was my top pick.
My eyes narrowed. Everyone knows that to reveal your hand before the draw is a cardinal violation of strategy. I mumbled something about just wanting my own four walls and turned back to drawing neat squares with my highlighter around the singles listed as “large” or “with fireplace.”
Like cockfighters training prize birds, we all had different tactics for producing a winner. The weak-willed clipped or sent proxies. Others had spent the past week sending threatening e-mails with words like “deference” and “you will alienate the entire junior class” to the accelerated sophomores with the gall to enter the singles draw. In my suite, there had been no discussion at all — we all silently put in for singles, every woman for herself.
This is not a sport for the faint of heart.
Our dean spread the cards dramatically across the table and called us to attention. One by one, representatives of the groups vying for triples and doubles walked up to draw their destiny, wiggling their fingers restlessly and stepping over the hecklers sitting cross-legged on the floor. The more ostentatious members of my class clutched their high picks and pounded the air like triumphant Black Panthers, or alternately, crumpled into the carpet and moaned at their deuce of clubs.
Finally the two rivals for the Sextet faced each other across the table. In a flash of blades and a whirl of feathers, it was all over. Wild cries rose from the gallery; the junior boys huddled and furiously reorganized themselves for different rooms while the sophomore grinned and strolled back to his seat.
In this arena, the stakes are high — life and death, human dignity. After all, my roommate cannot be held responsible for her actions if she has to spend another year in a bunked double, waking up each morning to the peppy strains of my friend’s a cappella album humming from my CD alarm clock. I can’t be sure what she’ll do — her left eyelid has been twitching a lot lately.
When her turn came, she drew the lowest pick. Condemned to a shoebox psycho single, she limped back to her seat. Her eyes were listless; she’ll probably never fight again.
There has got to be a more humane way to determine next year’s rooming than this blood sport.
Room draw brings out the worst in human nature. For 10 days prior to the event, we become calculating gamblers and schemers — dining hall conversation is reduced to petty, repetitive debates of subscription rates and rooming combinations. Suitemates you thought to be mild-mannered and friendly all year suddenly bare their talons and let you know what they really think of everyone in the entryway. We’re all sick of eight months spent stepping over each other’s dirty laundry and listening to each other pee while we brush our teeth; suddenly next year’s privacy seems a whole lot more important than feelings or friendship.
There is something brutal about resolving all this with the accidental flip of a card. Yale should be more civilized. Why can’t room draw work like every other privilege here — why can’t we hand in teacher recommendations or write 500-word essays to demonstrate we’re worthy of a nice room?
I would settle for a round-robin Trivial Pursuit tournament — anything would be better than those annual two hours of luck, shrieks, carnage and heartbreak.
Like cockfights, the primitive cruelty of room draw belongs in Indiana Jones movies and San Juan backstreets, not respectable universities. There is good reason room draw is illegal in all states except Oklahoma, New Mexico and Louisiana. There is good reason humane societies all over the world are lobbying their local politicians to put a stop to this appalling disrespect for human decency and compassion.
I urge you to take action — we must chalk the sidewalks, hold candlelight vigils at the Women’s Table and present petitions to Dean Richard Brodhead. The Yale College Council ought to use its enormous political clout to pass compelling resolutions against room draw savagery.
Admittedly, it may be futile to struggle against a brutal tradition so long ingrained in our culture. But for the sake of the generations of Yalies to come, we must try.
Molly Worthen is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her columns appear on alternate Tuesdays.