The last three lines of Bright College Years, Yale’s unofficial alma mater, offer a maritime metaphor to help make sense of our time here: “May let these words our watch-cry be, / Where’er upon life’s sea we sail: / ‘For God, for Country and for Yale!’” The idea is that when we leave we take this place with us no matter where we go. On the sea of life, Yale is the map or the binoculars or maybe even the entire boat, bow to stern. There’s a reason that when seniors sing those last three lines at graduation, stumbling through those final high notes, tradition holds that we wave a small white handkerchief in the air above our heads.
The symbolism — of sails, of sailors, of one majestic vessel propelling us forward — is enticing. The great ship Yale, like the walls that ensconce our residential colleges, protects us from the monsters lurking in mare incognitum, uncharted sea.
On the cusp of graduation, I find myself thinking about another boat: the ship of Theseus. Legend goes that the Athenian king owned a mighty trireme, boasting no fewer than 30 oars, which endured regular damage on the water and thus needed frequent repairs. Over many years, each time the boat came back to port, workers replaced one component of the ship — the deck, the mast and every oar — piece by piece until nothing original remained. The sight of the construction inspired debate amongst all the resident philosophers. They wondered: Was this boat something new entirely, or still the ship of Theseus?
When we talk about Yale we talk about the ship of Theseus, more or less. Something changes imperceptibly, yet constantly, little by little. Two plate tectonics shift gently underneath Old Campus. Nothing seems to happen, until all of a sudden the world splits in half and continents appear.
The Yale I’m leaving is not the place where I arrived four years ago, covered in post-Harvest dirt. Last year, the School of Management debuted some triumphant new building. The University bank account is much bigger now and that café in Becton Center where they exclusively play Diana Ross is still shiny and fresh. And in turn, that old Yale was not the Yale attended by its first-ever students in 1701, the Yale that Dink Stover traipsed through in 1912, or the godless Yale that inspired former News chairman William F. Buckley — incidentally, another great lover of boats — to write his own columns in this paper more than half a century ago.
On the cusp of graduation, I understand that desire to stand athwart. To make my Yale last well into the future, longer than every other Yale that has come before.
That task would be impossible. We flow through here quickly, after all. Plus bigger changes than this routine cycle of human capital confront us in the next few years: the arrival of two new residential colleges and hundreds of new students, hundreds of new ID numbers and fresh mattresses wrapped in blue plastic. Ten new senior societies, at least. And less numerically quantifiable changes: renovated buildings, new places to eat late at night, updated syllabi.
When I return to visit, what will connect this new Yale to the Yale I left behind? Could I recognize what stands in this spot a century from now?
Theseus may have slain the Minotaur, but he left the brainteaser about his boat for us to resolve. That, I think, is the privilege and responsibility of our four years here. To decide what binds us together and what we should throw overboard. The challenge is formidable, and we are bound to disagree, but how lucky we are to have the debate on the deck of such a beautiful ship, its sails waving like a handkerchief on the horizon.
Marissa Medansky is a senior in Morse College and a former opinion editor for the News. This is her last column for the News. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .