Already, the spring semester of my senior year is tinged with the first promises of an impending nostalgia. As we select our courses with the gravitas of finality, create last-semester bucket lists and begin to envision Life After Yale, we anticipate our farewell in May to all we’ve been given here — carefully curated communities, food in abundances that could have rivaled Hesiod’s Golden Age, mercifully lenient deadlines. Among many of my fellow seniors, the question of the hour has become: “What are you going to do next year?”
Yet earlier this week, while at the library with a junior co-columnist (who, incidentally, shares this page with me), a library employee I’ve befriended over the past year asked this very question not of me, but of him.
We were both stunned by this unexpected turn. My library worker friend, however, simply replied that he knew I’d do just fine after Yale, no matter what. “The real question is what he’s going to do when you’re not here!” he laughed. His tone then sobered, as he shifted to telling us that several years ago he had suffered from an illness so debilitating that it was recommended that he enter a home, but his wife refused to leave him at all costs.
“If you have someone you care about, you need to start working and planning now to stay together,” he said. “If you know they’re not the one, you need to leave right away.” His concerns for my future reflected an urgent need to develop a sense of integrity in personal commitments, a far cry from the careerist prognoses that have lately dominated my conversations with other Yalies.
His advice recalled other, unexpectedly given insights I received over this past year. Last semester, I struck up a conversation with an older, African-American dining hall worker who expressed disgust at the behavior she regularly witnessed from students around her residential college. She couldn’t reconcile the idea that the immature young people she would hear boasting about how drunk they’d gotten or whom they’d hooked up with over the weekend were being groomed as future leaders and role models. As a hardworking mother of four, she found it difficult to understand why Yalies seemingly lacked the strong values and decency she’d instilled in her own children.
Another worker with whom I’m very close often shares her thoughts with me in the dining hall on family life, female self-respect and nurturing healthy relationships. “I see the girls who come through here,” she said once. “So many of them aren’t even friends with these guys they’re seeing.” Another time, after we discussed the importance of hand-making gifts for loved ones, she brought me homemade banana bread, demonstrating that very act of affection which deserved more gratitude than I could express.
The concern of these three kind, thoughtful individuals — who have become friendly faces and trusted advisers to me at Yale — for students diverges sharply from those that many students seem to have for themselves. But they serve as the caretakers of Yale’s dining halls and libraries, often taken for granted, in no officially recognized capacity to advise. By most at Yale, they are not considered worthy of the same degree of respect or admiration with which we honor the professors and other academic faculty members we consider our mentors.
Against a backdrop of queries about employment or musings on the post-collegiate social life, the advice that my friends among Yale’s staff have given me is extraordinarily profound, deeply concerned with my well-being and moral upbringing. In the future, I will no doubt draw on their words as seriously as on the academic counsel I’ve received at Yale. Although their sources may seem unlikely, these words nevertheless remind me of our very real accountability to developing our ethical lives just as painstakingly as we might our career prospects. It is all the more shameful, then, that the rigid efficiency that the Yale administration attempts to enforce on its employees — punishing worker-student friendships as breaches of “professionalism” — rejects and devalues any wisdom they can offer to us. We could stand to gain both from their personal experiences and from the knowledge they’ve gleaned, watching generations of Yale students pass through the same gates that we will.
Whether you have one semester left at Yale or seven, please don’t neglect those who watch us grow throughout our time here, nourishing and protecting us. We are indebted to them, too. Just ask the lady who swipes your card at dinner how she’s doing. At least thank her on your way out; you might find yourself doing it more often than you ever could have predicted.
Sherry Lee is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column typically runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .