“I have some advice if you want to be admitted at Yale,” remarks the tour guide to an eager cadre of prospective students and their parents: “Rub this foot.” Leaning against the bronze likeness of Theodore Dwight Woolsey, the ambassador reaches his hand to the heavily polished boot of the statue and, in a gesture of almost religious gravity, graces his finger along its smoothed surface. A vicarious shudder of ecstasy washes over the enraptured audience: this, finally, is the secret to the college admissions process. Grueling SAT preparation, endless studying and extracurricular endeavor at once lose their all-encompassing significance — the panacea of Ivy League acceptance now stands literally an arm’s length away.
Although global in scope and ancient in origin, the practice of stroking statues for good luck seems to have reached its idiosyncratic apex in liberal education. Prestigious universities, heralded as centers for the development of rational thinking and empirical analysis, nevertheless cleave to their illogical caressing traditions. John Harvard’s polished shoe resembles that of Woolsey’s. Students at the University of Maryland pet a bronze turtle, Testudo, for luck in athletic or academic endeavors. Equally true to the intellectual tradition stands the figure of Shakespeare’s Juliet in Verona, Italy, whose right breast has been grabbed so many times that it has started to disintegrate. And there, as the Bard himself writes, lies the rub. For as we continue to indulge our superstitions through the perpetual abuse of historical property, do we not somehow consign our fortunes to the arbitrations of chance, foregoing personal responsibiliy in favor of iconic intervention?
Probably not. Our meals are provided in scenic dining halls, our renovated rooms heated in the wintertime and our egos coddled by campus press and public opinion. Whatever element of chance we incorporate into our daily lives will never be a matter of survival. Compare this with Testudo the terrapin, who, hatched on a desolate beach in Florida, was forced to traverse the rugged sand dunes to the roiling ocean, avoiding the peregrinations of voracious seagulls and inclement weather to eventually arrive in sun-soaked College Park, Md., where he remains cherished and massaged by a tirelessly grateful student body. What could be luckier than that?
Before their tour of Yale can continue, all the visitors demand a moment’s communion with Woolsey’s toe. Some cup the foot in a manner akin to that of the tour guide, while others merely brush a cautious thumb along the protrusion. A small but noticeable minority assume the opposite approach, fondling the base of the figure with erotic intensity in order to appease the gods of Undergraduate Admissions through an unambiguous display of supplication. Finally, this rite of Old Campus completed, the spectators release the monument and turn their attention once more to the guide. Their fears of rejection assuaged, their prospects of a bright future gleaming in the reflection of the bronze trustee, the crowd resumes its exploration of the University, all at least temporarily looking forward to their inevitable return for Bulldog Days in the spring.