Yale always had a way of convincing me that it was the only place in the world. After high school daydreams and hours of acronymed tests, this place I knew only in pamphlets became less a college than a Promised Land. Maybe it was the courtyard tres and the worn stone.
I was convinced that my college years would be the brightest years of my life before they had even begun. Four years to reach some apex of preparedness, of accomplishment, of happiness. Something. The stakes felt so high.
On Tuesday mornings, my professors would return the papers I had started the night before they were due. The bottom of the back page would read “Good. B.” The criticism wasn’t copious, but it was fair. Some nights I lay awake, the heady sensation of knowing more than I did before fizzling into guilt that I could have worked harder.
There was so much to do. Yale pursuits have always been numerous to the point of cliché, and over-commitment is practically a rite of passage. How many meetings did we sit through in those little rooms in WLH? They seemed important at the time and it was exciting when we got to start calling the shots. It didn’t matter that they were little shots. Everyone had their eye on the hierarchy.
The urgency and competition were fun until I lost a few elections. It was only after failure that I started to recognize the difference between doing important things and feeling important. It was only then that I bothered to parse ends from means.
By junior year I had pruned down my schedule to an on-campus job and my a cappella group — the arch-icon of Yale College life. That was “who I was” in the Yale sense: a major and a few lines on a resume. And I was less proud of my resume than I had been in high school. Back then, I had a goal in mind — and I had the “leadership qualities” that Yale so extols. Four years later, I felt smarter and more mature, but less accomplished. I didn’t feel like enough.
I thought getting into the Whiffenpoofs could change that. I didn’t want to sing for another year so much as I wanted to feel wanted by Yale again (my friends felt the same way about society tap). When I didn’t get in, it didn’t feel like an a cappella group had rejected me. It felt like Yale had rejected me. It sounds melodramatic, because it is. But that’s really what I built it up to be in my head.
I decided to postpone my senior year. After three years, I was worn down, like the stones in the courtyard that I fell in love with in high school. I needed some time and space to breath. A thousand miles away, I created a filter for the deadline emails that no longer applied to me. I learned new things (how to cook spinach, how to clean up after myself), did new things (went to yoga, read entire books) and found friends who weren’t at my college. My co-workers thought it was cool that I went to Yale, but not cool enough to ask about the details. It was comforting to know I wasn’t always going to be defined by who I was at Yale.
I think a lot of other people have felt this way before. It’s so easy, particularly in junior year, to lose your perspective and sense of self. The indignities of our past accumulate and begin to press up against our anxieties about the future. We’re suddenly too old to be precocious. But I promise you, Yale is not the only place where we can learn or do a lot. We’re just at a juncture.
I’m at Yale this weekend, and it doesn’t feel like the Promised Land anymore. Which is a good thing. It’s just a place. A special place, certainly, but not a perfect place, and not the only place. It’s a temporary home. Some of the memories are good, and some of them still sting. When we leave, and we all have to leave at some point, Yale will take us back.
Nathan Kohrman is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact him at email@example.com.