This week, hundreds of admitted students will attend Bulldog Days. Student organizations are ready for late-night social events, and hosts are eager to talk about how much they love Yale.
However, when I arrived as a prefrosh one year ago, the campus atmosphere was somewhat different. The night before Bulldog Days kicked off, Michele Dufault ’11 died from asphyxiation after her hair got caught in a machine while she was working late at night in Sterling Chemistry Laboratory.
A campus-wide email told the story the next afternoon, and Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel told all of us prefrosh about the accident later that night. Hundreds of students attended the candlelight vigil held in Saybrook’s courtyard the first night of Bulldog Days.
In July, Asteroid 15338 was renamed “15338 Dufault” in honor of Dufault. In January, the Yale Physics Department established the Michele Dufault Summer Research Fellowship and Conference Fund to fund research in the physical sciences for one female Yale student over the summer.
What’s with our tendency to recognize distinguished people such as Dufault with namesakes only after they have passed away?
We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of stuff being named after people who have long since left us. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established decades after King’s assassination; memorial funds like that bearing Dufault’s name are plentiful. I live in Lawrance Hall, which was named one year after Thomas Garner Lawrance 1883 died during his final year at Yale.
Perhaps we go through these naming rituals out of respect for people who have died and their accomplishments. Granted, commemoration an admirable act, and I’m not trying to discount that by any means. The question I am asking, though, is why we don’t do similar things for the living. Undoubtedly, there are just as many notable living people, so why don’t we honor them?
My suitemate had a swift explanation for our focus on the dead: “Because they’re dead. So they’re more special.” As horrible as that sounds, there’s a certain degree of truth behind it. In our multifaceted and bustling lives, it’s become increasingly harder for someone to stand out in a crowd. Even the most impressive achievement is reduced to an article in the News to be forgotten in a couple of days. With everyone doing so much in such little time, it’s no wonder that death has become the defining factor that distinguishes the people we remember.
Ours has become a society in which everyone is so occupied and busy that we fail to realize how special the people around us are. Instead, we take their presence for granted. Then, when they leave us for good, we’re shocked and crushed, and so the memorials begin.
We should not wait until such tragedies occur to start applauding these people. We should celebrate them now, while they’re still around, so they can join us in celebrating their passion, love and accomplishments. After all, wouldn’t it be nice if Michele Dufault were able to present the check for the Dufault Fellowship to the recipient herself?
Thursday marked the first anniversary of the freak accident that took Dufault’s life. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since she was taken from the Yale community so abruptly. However, let us hope something good can come out of her death. Let’s hope we’ll open our eyes wider during our daily lives to recognize the beauty in the people who currently surround us, rather than waiting for death to smack and wake us up.
The point is not to honor everyone but to shift the focus of our remembrances toward the living. Though the asteroid and research fellowship bring much joy to Dufault’s friends and family, there is still undeniable grief behind these namesakes that could be avoided if she were celebrated when she was alive.
So the next time you come across a beloved friend, family member or even mere acquaintance, ask yourself: If given the chance, would you name something after that person? If you find someone for whom the answer is yes, as I sincerely hope you will, find every possible way to cherish your time together. Because it may very well be too late to do so if you wait any longer.
Ike Lee is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.