This column was published as part of the Commencement Issue for the Class of 2015.
When I first visited Yale, my tour guide told us the walls of some early 20th-century buildings on campus had been splashed with acid shortly after their completion. Parts of the stonework had been left unfinished; pieces of glass in the windowpanes had been broken and then repaired. Portions of the rooftops had been artfully lit aflame and charred.
The guide said the architects designed this destruction intentionally. They wanted the new buildings to look like they had been on campus for centuries. For that effect, they strategically marred their Gothic creations to create the illusion of age — of permanence.
As a student, I came to realize this incident exemplified a larger pattern. It seemed as though many aspects of the University had been constructed just like that early batch of residential colleges: altered to convey a first impression that upon closer examination proved false.
Curiously, the goal was often to create a false sense of oldness. The first time I walked into the Yale Daily News building, I admired how the books that filled the shelves in the boardroom, with their perfectly yellowed pages and faded covers, created an aura of history and importance. Then I learned that those volumes weren’t prized tomes inherited from the paper’s earliest crop of cub reporters, but instead bought in bulk circa 2010 with an interior decorator’s help. Elsewhere, I participated in traditions that older club members claimed were long established. Only later did I discover that those rituals were relatively new.
There were other illusions, too, meant to engender first impressions of confidence, competence or value. With time, the strength of those impressions also began to fade. I realized classmates who exuded put-togetherness were often not as fit and flawless as they seemed. Crises that seemed like the end of the world usually were revealed to be surmountable. Groups whose membership I once coveted eventually faded to irrelevance, and experiences that felt essential soon became optional, at best. One night last week, when a friend and I finally found the lone open restaurant after losing our way on a road trip and driving aimlessly around a mountain in rural Virginia — and when that restaurant had live music and taxidermy, no less — I knew I was happier to be in that booth than I would have been at Myrtle Beach.
This is the lesson we’re constantly learning: Our first impressions are often wrong, thanks to both our own naivety and the push of outside forces. The cool kids really aren’t that cool. The buildings really aren’t that old.
But here’s the rub: At Yale, for every occasion that my first impressions have revealed themselves to be false, there has also been a time that something appearing too good to be true was in fact 100 percent real. The kid next to me in section really was that smart. The lecture I’d heard so much about really was that great. The fellowship with the deadline I missed actually would have been incredible. The cool kids did throw the best parties, and I definitely wasn’t allowed inside.
It would be easier to leave this place behind if Yale had always been dishonest with us, if our first impressions had always been false. We’d step off Old Campus in our graduation gowns cynical and jaded that the moon we’d been promised was never provided.
It is more difficult to acknowledge that our first impressions were sometimes accurate. That for every all-nighter, fake friend or problem set we’re delighted to leave behind is something we wish we could cling to a little longer — or something we were so close to touching and will never actually reach.
Marissa Medansky is a senior in Morse College. She was an opinion editor on the Managing Board of 2014.