Before it faded from memory, students used to call a small cupola in the roof of one residential college the stepping stone to heaven. That is, until the authorities sealed the space, along with the healing it provided.
Late one misty spring night in 2012, a freshman traveled up to the cupola to mourn the death of a friend. He looked for quiet companionship in the face of tragedy. He left a scarlet, self-bound book full of blank pages full of future thoughts up there.
Before Yale sealed off the door, you needed upper body strength, a flashlight and the ability to take risks to access the space. You needed to find the rope tied to a metal beam. After hauling yourself up, you’d find a shaky staircase leading to a plywood panel. You wouldn’t think the staircase could hold your weight, but it would. After pushing on the panel bumping against your head with the crown of your skull, you would emerge into a small, gazebo-like structure. Far above courtyards, you would be greeted with encompassing views of Yale’s towers.
Evening by evening during that spring and summer, rumors guided students to the cupola. Finding the book, they left their thoughts, insecurities and meditations. A sophomore pondered his proximity to the moon with his roommate, and waited to hear the results of his transfer application to Reed College. He advised future explorers not to remain unhappy alone, but to seek camaraderie with others. His roommate wrote on the next page that he was “one of the bravest people I know.” Five seniors spent their last night of college up there, 12 hours after graduating, staring at their old world in miniature.
While some entries in the journal intentionally speak wisdom, most stumble into unexpected profundity. A student arrived up on the roof after the urgings of her roommate. She advised to always agree to adventure’s inconvenient timings, before saying she’d return after thinking of something profound. She never did.
As time went on, the book lost its original purpose of mourning, but shifted to the more whimsical pursuits of life in college. A suite in the college wrote up a formal constitution under the stars. The next entrant declared the past declaration null and void, and declared another superseding constitution.
Eventually, around September of that year, the entries stopped. The rumors of an open rooftop must have drifted to facilities, or some poor soul could have been caught up there. Whatever the reason, explorers returned to their space only to find a shiny, polished Master Lock. The lock frustrated those trying to access the cupola. As months turned into years, those who remembered it graduated and drifted into adulthood.
Last week, someone performing at a poetry slam told the story of a book of advice found in an attic tower. Fortunately, an audience member had an encyclopedic knowledge of campus, so she knew just the amount of pressure to apply to the sealed door described by the poet. She found the book and returned it to its original owner with the hope that he’d return it to the space.
I write this message to communicate a mess of emotions. Tragedy wrenches hearts apart, but also leads to unexpected joy and discovery. Adventure and wonder can be found in unexpected corners of Yale at unforeseen times. Take risks because without risks, there is no discovery. Callous administrative action seeking to make spaces safer can actually make campus more dangerous by removing campus spaces where people go to think.
The stepping stone to heaven remains open (although it will not be long after this column’s publication). However, the cupola is just one of thousands of places like it. And they’re not all locked. So go exploring, find places to think in this all-too-often stifling campus. You never know who has been there before.
Henry Chapman is a junior in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .