I just saw my fifth Parents’ Weekend. My parents stayed home, sensibly stopping at four. In their absence, I observed the holiday the way we used to — by doing an on-campus activity that would have never occurred to me otherwise. I went on a student-led tour of the Yale University Art Gallery.
The tour group was 20 people strong and included several pairs of parents. Our guide encouraged us to speak, saying she desired discussion, and the parents took her up on this. They answered the questions she posed, then began to pose questions of their own, questions not inquisitive so much as challenging.
The tour became like section — with a few aggressive freshmen in their fifties.
One parent, a lightly bearded gentleman with round glasses, seemed determined to undermine our guide, to demonstrate his analytic abilities — out of practice, perhaps, but undiminished — in the face of this young, female, Ivy League authority figure. When she ended her discussion of the 1967 painting “Solving Each Problem As It Arises” by saying, “That’s it,” the lightly bearded man spoke up.
“Wait a minute; no it’s not!” he said. “This painting is from 1967. Do you know what was going on in 1967?” He listed several historical commonplaces, belaboring a point the guide had gestured towards in her introduction. I had to go, so I don’t know how it resolved, but the tour seemed in danger of collapsing at its conclusion into a one-man show about this father’s self-asserting response to the overwhelming venerability around him. He couldn’t accept the musty air, the moldering stones, the ancient art and the 22-year-old go-getter who was briefly to be his Virgil.
Appearances are what Parents’ Weekend is all about. With its own behavior, Yale encourages its guests to put on a show, to prove they belong. There’s always a serpentine line to see the Whiffenpoofs, and dinner in the dining hall never tastes better. Performances abound: in my first four fall semesters, I was in three Parents’ Weekend improv shows and one extremely ill-advised play, in which my character wore a fat suit and gradually devolved into a clown. My mother insisted, with heartbreaking inaccuracy and conviction, that I was the one good part of the production. In truth, there were no good parts. But at least my performance gave her an occasion to show her love, however misguided or misplaced it might have been.
One Parents’ Weekend I spent over three hours having lunch with my friends and our parents. I have no idea why it took so long. One mother, in town without her husband and looking nervous in conversation, repeatedly violated doctor-patient privilege by talking about the famous people she’s treated over the years. Afterwards, my father, also a doctor, expressed his disapproval. I’ve heard him break the same rule once or twice in conversation.
This year I ate alone in the Berkeley dining hall, which served an all-organic menu, autumnal and redolent of the harvest festival. There were two different kinds of turkey: traditional roast and five-spice rubbed. This food was delicious but seemed dishonest — if the purpose of the weekend is to present a snapshot of student life, that is.
We’ve been told you cannot observe a phenomenon without changing it; Parents’ Weekend suggests that you can’t gussy up a phenomenon and open it to visitors without making everyone act strangely.
An example: On Sunday I saw a middle-aged African-American couple in front of Skull and Bones. The husband stood at the foot of the steps, facing the street. His wife held up a digital camera to take his picture. Just before the flash, he made two fists and formed an X with his arms in front of his chest. “Skull and Bones are gangstas,” he said. Looking at the image on her camera’s display, his wife shook her head. “Now why would you do that?” she demanded.
“They are gangstas,” he insisted, shrugging and walking away from the tomb.
From what had been given him, this father assembled a vision of student life — exciting, illustrious, imaginary. Which goes to show what I’m starting to suspect after four years of this: that the best Yale is a Yale of the mind.
Eamon Murphy is a senior in Saybrook College.