More than anything else I will leave behind on May 22, it is hard for me to believe that this particular tale of the city, of my city, is coming to an end. When I began writing this column three years ago, I never expected that it would become one of the central parts of my Yale experience, that every other weekend I would find a story to tell about community policing, urban development, or the joys, heartbreaks and utterly human disappointments of local politics. But then, very little about New Haven has conformed to my expectations.
I chose to come to Yale without giving much thought to the city in which it was located and with the primary goal of reinventing myself, not necessarily planning to critically examine the broader world around me. I found my way off campus thanks to a series of lucky accidents and to the determination of a number of fellow students who had already discovered what I would learn: that New Haven offered a lesson, unparalleled in Yale’s classrooms, about how to be a responsible and dedicated citizen and by extension, a better person.
Not all of these lessons were easy. It was frustrating to accept that there were times when no amount of reasoned argument could overcome prejudice, that coalitions necessarily move more slowly than their constituent parts and that in a town as big — and as small — as New Haven, personal disagreements could unnecessarily complicate those coalitions. It was painful to admit that I could be a good campaigner but a not very good elected official, that I had more to contribute as a writer than as a political leader and that — unlike in high school, where it seemed as if there were always another hour of sleep I could afford to lose in pursuit of another goal or activity — I was not capable of saving the world, not even a corner of it, on my own.
But as difficult as this curriculum was, it enriched my life beyond measure. The 14 hours I spent outside the Edith Johnson Towers one cold March day in 2004 brought me closer to understanding the true value of a ballot. The stories I heard at union rallies, on the front steps of people’s houses, in churches and in hearings at City Hall taught me the depth of need that lies behind contract negotiations, efforts to improve local schools, and fights for equality, a decent standard of living and dignity.
None of this is meant to undercut the value of the classes I took at Yale. The frameworks my courses provided for understanding questions of race, class, religion and sexual orientation were tremendously valuable. But knowing that it was my neighbors who were engaged in these fights and seeing the ways in which their struggles were — and will continue to be — intimately connected to my own concerns about what kind of world I live in touched me as no class or case study ever could.
I think my time in New Haven has made me a better person not because I learned everything about the city or because I now know how to fix the grave problems facing it, because I don’t. Rather, it was in New Haven that I learned how to be honest about my own weaknesses, to ask for help when I needed it, to listen and ask questions, to back down from a fight, to admit when I was wrong. It was here that I learned what kind of people I am proud to stand up and be counted with, to value the sound of my voice blending with that of a crowd, of a movement, until it is unrecognizable as my own.
Perhaps it is sentimental of me to write about the simple virtues of democracy and citizenship: we live, after all, in a country and in a political time when even those values are not so simple any more. But I have come to believe, passionately and unshakeably, that wherever we head after graduation, our lives will be better if we cast informed votes in every election, if we dedicate some concern to the conditions of our neighbors and our neighborhoods. No matter what language we use to describe our goals, whether we work for a blessed community or urban renewal, we need to commit to each other and to our communities if we are to have any hope for success.
As we graduate, we come to the end of a time when we can afford to leave such concerns about our cities and towns to other people. Yale has prepared us to take our places on any number of stages. It is my greatest wish and hope for the Class of 2006 that as we take those places, we do not forget the more humble stages we leave every morning and to which we return every night.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a senior in Silliman College. Her column has appeared on alternate Mondays.