Last Saturday, I missed the Safety Dance again. During my time here I have attended exactly one Safety Dance — sophomore year — and missed the other three. And, yes, I’ve been keeping track.
If I were a less honest woman, I’d try to persuade you that I’ve been taking a stand against classism. The Salvation Army is the only affordable clothing store close to campus, and Yalies who patronize it only for ridiculous ’80s outfits every October remind me of middle schoolers who pretend to be nice to the new girl in overalls and snicker to each other about her later. But in reality, I simply decided each year that I had better ways to spend the evening — a performance here, a visiting alum there — and contented myself with noting its passage with a nod.
The weird thing is that I pay so much attention to it anyway. After all, as much affection as I have for the decade in which I was born (Salvo classism aside), I’ve managed to miss every ’80s-themed frat party without a second thought. But the Safety Dance is much more than just an ’80s-themed party. It is mentioned on tours and in admissions materials and college guides, held up to prefrosh as an apotheosis of student life — with the subtext “Look! Look! Yalies do know how to have fun sometimes!”
Sure, the Safety Dance wouldn’t be advertised so prominently if it hadn’t already become an institution — if “institution” is the proper term for a party whose theme wouldn’t have made sense before 1994 or so. But it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy — it is, after all, advertising. It becomes one of those things, like the YSO Halloween concert next week or the Harvard-Yale game next month, that incoming students are told to put on their calendars (literal, virtual or mental). Once we’ve become so attuned to its significance, we note its passage when it comes, regardless of whether we actually made it to Commons that night.
I mean this literally: Significant student events like the Safety Dance become themselves a way to mark the passing of time. After all, it’s not like Yale’s academic structure gives us much in this regard. Between the bookends of shopping and reading periods there’s a vast, homogenous space of classes/reading/midterms/papers: the “daily grind.”
Even on an everyday basis, it’s the things we look forward to on the weekends that break this up. Events that students hear about before we arrive on campus have a much broader effect. They shape our understanding of the entire year, giving it a cyclical, unchanging rhythm from year to year — at least on the whole.
For each individual Yalie, of course, the process is supposed to be quite different — indeed, it’s supposed to turn each of us into someone entirely new. This is what “finding oneself” at college implies, after all. (Given how clueless most freshmen seem when they arrive, I suspect the “finding” takes enough work that it’s essentially transformative). Somehow, even though freshmen and seniors take (many of) the same classes and attend the same social events, it’s assumed that the difference between the two isn’t just that the latter has been around longer, but that he’s found himself more.
In reality, of course, “finding oneself” is anything but a linear process. It has nothing to do with the regular calendar cycle of class and ritual, which by definition can’t do any more in four years than it has in one. Such an individual process can only happen in the moments between communal events, the small choices that shape the big ones. Think about the people who take a semester off, leaving the standard calendar, and come back with a new outlook, or the class taken for fun that turns into a second major or even a first.
To feel like we’re moving forward, we need the structure that college’s communal rituals give us. But for us as individuals, moving through, the calendar that matters is less standardized. One day we have a career, then we don’t, then we do again; a student comes out as gay — or doesn’t — at a moment none of his friends suspect; today I have a regular column in the News, and after this, as it happens, I will not.
It’s not a predictable or regulated process, and to say we’ve found ourselves by the time we’re handed diplomas is probably unfair to begin with. But the hope is that after we cycle through for the last time and move into a “real world” where the years run into each other, we’ll no longer need to be told what to look forward to. We’ll be able to mark our calendars ourselves.
Dara Lind is a senior in Branford College.