When I came back to Yale this fall after having sat out spring 2008, I wanted variety in my class schedule. In my previous semester I had taken four English classes, which proved disastrous. Each course was worthwhile in isolation, but all together the sameness of the work was stultifying. I could barely finish the writing; the less I say about the reading, the better.
As shopping week began, I decided to take Basic Drawing at 8:30 a.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays. Several things about this idea appealed to me: the unexpectedness, the novelty, the early hour (which would ensure that, at least twice a week, I wouldn’t sleep too late) and the notion of cultivating a disciplined artistic practice, something I hoped might be applicable to writing. The professor seemed glad to have a second-semester senior in his class. “No self-respecting Yale student,” he says, “should graduate without taking Basic Drawing.”
There are three other seniors and one graduate student in the class. The other seven students are freshman girls. For the most part, they’re a quiet, reserved group. I saw no huge disparity in drawing abilities as the class began. Some people seemed better trained than others, but everyone demonstrated strength at some point. At midterm, the focus of the class became our final projects, what the teacher calls, with his characteristic nominative flair, our “independent research.”
The class had been going well for me, but as the independent research began, I foundered. I had no emotional investment in my subject matter; I started to avoid it. Last week we brought in the first substantial products of our research. Two of the freshmen came to class not with a couple of completed homework assignments, as the rest of us had done, but with what was undeniably art, in an I-know-it-when-I-see-it kind of way. One had done several surrealistic charcoal drawings of a strange, multi-chambered space, which she says is her room but which must have been intensely fictionalized. Inside the space is a bizarre and mutable form, vaguely creature-ish, like an abstract sculpture.
The other student, working with tempera wash in a more realistic mode, had painted a view of her suite’s window seat, stacked with pillows in various of attitudes of compression and relaxation. Though this second project lacked the esoteric imagination of the first, it evinced great proficiency in a medium I know to be difficult, thanks to this class. The floral patterns on those pillows were incredible.
The professor, to chasten and inspire the rest of us, held these two projects up for praise. He had our two true artists tape their work to the wall. “It becomes an evolving notion,” he said, tracing with his hand the progression of the first girl’s mutating sculpture. “And it has to do with doing. You see what she found, what she gave up.”
Listening to him, it occurred to me why it might be true that no self-respecting Yale student should graduate without taking Basic Drawing: because an art course offers an entirely different way of understanding fellow students. Your opinion of them and their abilities derives not from perceptions of easy outward shows, like comments about the reading, but from the work they make in private, or silently in class. To confront an expression of vast, complex interiority from someone of whom you did not expect it is a necessary lesson.
Last week I ran into a girl from my hometown, now a senior in high school, who was touring campus with her mother. She told me she wants to come to Yale but is considering a full scholarship for creative writing at a state university. Her mother looked expectantly at me, seeming to want advice. I thought for a moment about how good it would feel to go to college for free for being a fiction writer.
I imagine lots of Yale students face this general dilemma: spend $200,000 on an Ivy League education, or accept a prestigious offer from a less prestigious school. Either choice requires certain strengths of character. In accepting the free ride, one forgoes the right to tell those who ask, “I’m going to Yale,” a statement that always involves some measure of pride, no matter how awkward it feels. But the successful high school student who comes to Yale inevitably experiences a painful humbling. Whatever your interest, there’s likely to be someone here who’s further along. They’ve read more, produced more, gotten more recognition. It’s difficult to face this. It can inspire, or it can lead to despair. To me it’s done both.
But looking back I realize the most transformational things I’ve learned at Yale have come from other students, the ones whose knowledge and interests have advanced my own. This is not to denigrate professors; one can’t help, I think, being more affected by the example of peers. I can’t say for certain, since I’ll never experience the alternative, but it’s hard to imagine I would have undergone the same changes had I gone to college somewhere else as an officially designated exceptional student.
That’s what I said to the high school senior and her mother, anyway. Who knows what she’ll do.
Eamon Murphy is a senior in Saybrook College.