This is for the senior who will not have a college named after her: who feels the ghosts of slaveowner’s past yanking a rose stem out of her throat, who slit her tongue and watched the blood spill in October — how it flowed into the palms of a thousand newspapers, how the nation glared at those seeds of hope, how the fire blazed in the distance, how the students stood there in the rain like something beautiful would grow out of pain.
This is for the junior who does not know if flowers can grow in tombs anymore: who holds the keys to a millionaire’s mansion and wonders if a slave once served its patrons, who chanted with the chorus of a thousand and wonders how to sing again, who will remember how to muster a voice so electric not even Ben Franklin could have stolen it.
This is for the sophomore who knows what love tastes like: who strung origami roses on a tree in the Calhoun courtyard, who offered a bouquet to a Yale Corporation fellow in honor of Roosevelt Thompson, who asked her friends how they were doing when they slumped home every night — fists soaring in the air, hands soldered with joy; the countless meetings that pricked at transcripts, the drinking gourds in the sky that led them through the night.
This is for the freshman who breathes life into flowers: whose freshman counselor asked him on the third day of school to share a “rose, a bud and a thorn” — a good thing that happened, a bad thing that happened and a thing he’s looking forward to — who knows that the sunshine is good, that Yale’s soil belongs to the indigenous Quinnipiac people and who knows he does not know what to look forward to anymore.
Who will remember the student whose soul would not fit in the history book’s columns? Who will remember what freedom once looked like, what a dream once looked like, what a struggle once looked like? What histories have been erased when all that remains is the man who could decide to be remembered? Who will remember the stories that money could never buy? What lives have been masked by the footprint of John C. Calhoun, class of 1804? What skeletons will he step on tomorrow? What flowers will he decide to crush? What grave will he force a student to dig up?
The thing about compromise is that most people only remember the compromise — the fact that it happened and what the compromise was: one free state here, one slave state there. And then they remember the war: how some email heard ‘round the world somehow started it all, how two sides clashed, how brother turned against sister. And then maybe, just maybe, if the institution feels the poetry is fitting: the heroic midnight ride — how a marching motley crew delivered an important message to the people.
Here is to the morning, afternoon and evening rides: the wars that wage on but will not be deemed worth remembering; the slow, evening dances in the hallways of cultural centers; the daily march to class that reminds us how we’ve been here, how we’re out here, how we ain’t leaving, how we’re loved; the lunches and dinners when we told each other how we’d make Yale a better place, administrators or not.
Once, I spoke with a high-level Yale administrator whose first words when answering my question were: “The great thing about students is that they’re only here for four years.” I winced but remembered that students are here forever, not in person, but in the ways they helped the school grow. On quiet days, when I leaf through the yearbooks of 1969 and ’73 and ’84 and read how students fought for a better Yale, I always get this urge to go outside. There’s something about the sunshine and the smell of fresh mulch that gets to me, as if the voices of 40-years-past were like fresh compost, never forgotten, just waiting for someone to stick their fingers in.
I have said it once and I will say it always: Yale is at once a vision, a company of promise, a society of hope. It is the rose, the thorn and the bud — the students who water it with life in the present; the gatekeepers committed to one way of harvesting history and the freshmen who arrive with thick-skinned hands held open, growing, always, the rose petals they were promised. Let us not forget we will always be part of this garden.
This column was published in partnership with DOWN Magazine.
Alex Zhang is a sophomore in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .