I awoke from my nap in the backseat of a teal-green Geo hurdling down I-91 as fast as our little wheels could take us — 55 mph.
Once I regained some semblance of cognizance, I realized I was slowly freezing to death. Aside from the raw, surging power under its hood, the Geo boasted a few additional charming idiosyncrasies: the heat didn’t work, the defrost was defunct, and the doors didn’t close all the way, allowing for minus-10-degree air to whistle through inch-wide gaps.
The kid in the passenger seat was posed like a meditating Buddha, holding both his feet in mitten-clad hands and moaning at a pitch eerily similar to Om. The guy driving alternated which foot would be warmed by his free hand and which would press the gas, creating several moments of heart-stopping swerving. The windows were opaque with gloriously layered ice formations, and a square-foot peep-hole had to be systematically scraped away from the driver’s-side windshield using an old comb, a library card, and sheer willpower. I surrendered myself to that oh-too-familiar Saturday morning purgatory: somewhere between a hangover and still being drunk. Through my stupor, I listened to Buddha and the driver talk.
They were talking about wishing they went to a state university. I assume the conversation began with reference to a State U south of the Mason-Dixon Line — talking about warmth was a sort of hallucinogenic indulgence at this stage of the trip. At State U, the two mused, they would be appreciated for being smart, whereas at Yale, they were just one in a vast sea of many. At State U, they would be genuinely good at the things they tried to do, instead of falling into the endless vat of mediocrity that greets even the most talented student at Yale. No matter how hard you try here, you’re gunna feel stupid, Driver said. Buddha chimed in from the passenger seat: It’d be like high school again! Those celebrated days when we were all Top Dogs, when our writing was habitually showered with praise, our resumes dripped with accolades. When doing math and writing papers were not mutually exclusive skills. Oh, State U, what a tangible utopia of academic ease! Of Dionysian revelry! Of carnivals of beer, topless parties, and attractive women!
I laughed aloud at their conversation, but conceded that they definitely had a point (albeit, somewhat convoluted). Shoving my frozen hands deeper into my armpits, I mused. Buddha’s point was somewhat misguided, but inarguably valid: It’s true that at one stage in all of our lives, each of us was singularly prodigious at something. In high school, we were big fish in little ponds. Fabulously tall in a land of Lilliputians. Carnivores at a petting zoo. Public, private, and boarding school alike, every Yalie was eminent in his field. We arrive at Yale demigods of Podunk, U.S.A.
Upon arriving on Old Campus, we are first awed by the architecture, then astonished by the choice of classes, and then — only then — absolutely stricken by the harrowing truth that we are not actually the apex of brilliance. We get a ‘B’ on our first paper. Our professors shrug with exaggerated ambivalence at the painting we spent three full days working on. Our first chem test ends in a sort of apocalyptic calamity. Just when we’re feeling really bad about ourselves, we meet some kid who is breezing through Math 430a. Most of us struggled in 120. I never even took it. Later we discover that this same kid has been published for his work on the hybrid genetics of caterpillars. We’ve been “published” in the family newsletter. He runs the steeple chase faster than a Shetland on uppers. We get out of breath running home from Durfee’s. Yale forces us to compare ourselves with people like him, and in doing so, makes us feel stupid. Inadequate. Mediocre.
We all know that kid at Yale who seems to transcend this Rule of Inexorable Mediocrity — someone who seems to be effortlessly great at everything he does. But here’s a little secret: if we were all able to don superman-like X-ray glasses which, incredibly, were able to pierce through that thick outer-layer of egoism, we’d see that those people are just as insecure as the rest of Yale’s student body. If they’ve never failed miserably then they’ve just been too scared to try anything they’re not already great at.
At a place where everyone seems to have something they do and do well, the majority of us find ourselves unreservedly okay. Most of us are not MVPs on a varsity team. Most of us don’t play an instrument particularly well. Most of us couldn’t sing a note on-key if we were paid to do so. The vast majority of us can’t act, can’t draw, can’t shoot baskets, and aren’t particularly brilliant at organic chemistry. Most of us are passably proficient — satisfactory, even — but certainly not exceptional. As a consummate poster-child of mediocrity, I am declaring myself the authority on this subject. If you feel stupid, so do 99% of us. Mediocrity at Yale is quite a feat.
I spent three hours in that Geo two weeks ago. Three long, cold, chilly, glacial, sub-zero hours. After stopping for coffee and disposable hand-warmers three times, we finally made it back to Yale. Peeling our ice-covered bodies out the car, Buddha said one last thing. Yale may suck because it makes you feel stupid, but look at things on the bright side: at Yale, we’re considered moderately attractive. If we went to State U, we’d be down-right ugly.
Haley Edwards lost a toe to frostbite … doesn’t that make her special?