Arriving at Yale has a lot in common with the major moments for which Yale itself is supposed to prepare us: starting a job, getting married, having a baby, leading the free world, etc. (And given our tuition, I expect to be prepared for no fewer than eight babies and three marriages.) Just like all those seminal events, we arrive on campus with a unique mixture of giddy, breathless excitement and mortal, stomach-turning dread. When it comes to mixing fun and fear, rollercoasters come close, and Yale is often metaphorized as one. Luckily, the second or third time you ride the Cyclone as a world-weary upperclassmen, you know at which dips and curves your stomach is going to drop and when your arms are going to fly skywards.
So, freshmen, we feel you: The maiden voyage is the most terrifying of all.
For me at least, the biggest butterfly-breeder of freshman year was the sheer scale of it all. College was simply bigger than anything that had come before it: thousands of new faces, a sprawling campus, scores of opportunities and adventures found, grabbed and missed, I was afraid of falling through the cracks, of failing to live up to the name of this storied ivory tower. This place’s sacred history, its stalwart traditions, and its past and present glories stand as a foreboding challenge to all that dare enter its wrought-iron gates. After all, I thought, this is the Yale, the great American institution: the monocled, pipe-smoking, mustachioed pinnacle of strong minds and strong hearts, lux et veritas.
But that was crazy.
Freshmen, fear not. Don’t be intimidated by the marble colonnades, the fancy alumni, and the fusty old name. Yale is, above all, far too ridiculous to take seriously. This is a place of whimsy unparalleled, of irony, absurdity, and hilarity, the likes of which even the pubescent days of high school could never match.
It’s not all sweater vests and debating Proust. In fact, that’s hardly any of it at all.
Prepare to see world-class classical violinists throw down world-class keg-stands. Or at the extracurricular bazaar, marvel as the Yale Political Union, an eight-decade old institution, competes for equal table space with the Affinage Cheese society. Then comes a-capella rush: grown men and women going to war over tiny tenors as if they were Helen of Troy.
There are Pundits naked in libraries, Pundits naked in classrooms … Pundits naked everywhere. There are plucky pranksters upending YPU debates by staging mass public makeouts. When a street evangelist turned up spouting homophobia last year, two (straight) heroes leaped into each others’ arms in front of him and did the same. In fact, we had so many raucous pranks last year that Dean Mary Miller sent out an official moratorium, threatening disciplinary action.
To be fair, Dean Miller, it’s not just us undergrads. The administration is no stranger to silly season. They brought the misogyny-spouting Ying Yang Twins to perform during the 40th anniversary of co-education. Now they’re bringing a general who slammed his superiors on-the-record and crashed out of service to teach a leadership seminar.
In my two years here, Yalies have staged all-out civil insurrections over newspapers in dining halls, Democratic Party-machine coffee stores, dirty Yale College Council campaigning and James Franco. I’ve seen the bomb squad rush into to action to defuse a suspicious box of self-help books, and Elm Street blocked by a silent, floating dance party. We’ve had the cast of the “Jersey Shore” beat up the beat with us; Vinny has promised to come for a Master’s Tea. We have Bieber-esque YouTube celebrities, America’s Next Top Modelers, jocks, nerds, stoners, dropouts, wannabes and everything in between. We have a Movement for Beauty and Justice, which is pretty much what it sounds like. And get limbered up for Sex Week at Yale: also, pretty much what it sounds like.
So yes, the big “Y” may loom, intimidating and austere. But I promise, once you crack the surface, this place is far too weird and wonderful to hold the pretense of seriousness for long. And once you’ve soaked in some of the prejudice-shattering and often inspiring ideas that Yale academics offer, you’ll learn to take them far less seriously than you expected. The same is true of Yale people. Their vibrancy and diversity — diversity of character and mind, the important kind — has shattered the dusty, constraining Old Yale archetype, while leaving the Old Yale spirit, character and traditions gloriously untouched.
Yale is, after all, a really funny place: earnest and pretentious, artistic and artsy, serious and silly, all at once. The largeness and chaotic incomprehensibility of it all should spark a sense of irony, a willingness to poke fun when needed, never sparing oneself. Forget the preconceived notions, the argyle and the aged. Dive into the insanity without pausing to construct a plan of attack. Take advantage of this place’s inimitable resources and people. Of those things that are worth doing, do them well, sincerely and bravely.
But before you do all that — all that splendorous hobby-horsing that makes you a Yalie — don’t take Yale too seriously. Or yourself. Seriously.
Alex Klein is a junior in Davenport College.