I didn’t grow up in poverty. Not even close, really. I grew up well connected, too — if I wanted in on the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. To have an extremely respectable union job, one that my father has worked for over 30 years, is no small amount of privilege, but, as the natural progression of the American Dream has it, my parents wanted more for me. And I did, too. So I, like nearly everyone here, like you, climbed and climbed. For a long time, it was simple input-output. We put in the work and got the grades. We filled in the right bubbles on our SATs and got the right score. We did the sports, the clubs, the service. We did what we were supposed to. Yale, though — Yale was different. We often think of progress as a long series of opening doors, and it’s our job to mold the right keys. But Yale isn’t a door, it’s lightning. Our keys weren’t put into locks and turned with rational cause and effect, they were tied to a kite and flown up into a storm.
The self-affirming logic of the meritocracy is a powerful one, and much like the story of Franklin’s key and the bolt of lightning, it’s steeped in falsehoods. Americans are particularly enthusiastic about the idea of a meritocracy, a system that rewards hard work and ability in a rational and predictable way. The word itself was coined by British author Michael Young, who penned it ironically. The idea that once we control for race, class and gender — or that we can even control for these variables in anything beyond a mindless thought experiment — that the cream will rise to the top is just patently false. Americans, especially the old and white ones, are fond of meritocracy. This is not to undermine the immense work and dedication of the vast majority of us — both at Yale and in the real world — but it’s also to say this: We got lucky.
For those of us who represented “the best of the meritocracy,” for those of us who seemed to prove its existence just by our existence, getting here was the dream of a lifetime. What happens after is a different story. You find that the next editor-in-chief of the News was actually chosen when they became the editor of The Daltonian, you find that “everyone gets internships through connections,” you find that the meritocratic narratives of the ruling class were just for show, that they’ve always been just for show.
Sometimes it feels amazing. Life is what happens when you’ve made other plans, after all, and the fact that you can run into a world leader in an elevator or get an internship because the recruiter’s cousin’s boyfriend’s dog went to Yale and they felt like keeping it in the family really feels like you’re along for a wild ride. For example, I came to have a column in this newspaper because I happened to be eating in the same dining hall as one of its editors when I had an idea for my first article. It’s fun, it’s surreal! It’s also terrifying. Beyond a sense of melodramatic betrayal, this realization is particularly taxing in that it makes you feel helpless. We love to be in control. We love to know what we’re doing, when, why and how. And suddenly, we find out that the world just doesn’t quite work that way, especially the world that Yale promises to catapult us into. Studying hard and getting good grades is rational; it also isn’t enough. The social wheeling and dealing is the real battlefield. So you better not step into that elevator without a pitch ready, because that’s the way this part of the world works.
Though he’s spent most his life inches from 50,000 or so volts, none of my dad’s worst injuries at work have been directly electrical: a permanently locked elbow, spike through his foot, two hernias and a nagging shoulder are all among his worst battle scars. My dad has been shocked a few times in his career. Never quite the smoking-hair momentary X-ray of the popular imagination, but, as he described it, he’s had “a few close calls.” Once, as a young journeyman in the late ‘80s, he found himself on the receiving end of a 277-volt light circuit. For clarity, that voltage can induce ventricular fibrillation (and kill you). When he finally cleaved himself from the current, he nearly fell off the manlift he was on, 20 feet above ground. He was lucky. In his line of work, most people don’t get hurt from the electricity itself — unless you’ve been cooked alive — but rather the fall afterward.
Wrapping up my sophomore year and approaching the halfway point, I find myself extremely grateful for the opportunity and magic that these last two years have earned me. I’m also deeply anxious about the next two (and the 60 or so after that), the fact that my future may be just as shaped by which elevator I get in as what I choose to major in. I have the privilege of a backup if this wild rollercoaster ride leaves me down and out; that is not universal. I always thought that the currents of our lives ran along closed circuits, that we could plot our wires where we wanted to go. But Yale has cut those wires I layed down in ways I never imagined. When a power line snaps, the electricity that runs through it needs somewhere to go. It arcs. It stretches its electric fingers through the air in unpredictable ways, along invisible paths of least-resistance. So, whatever your arc may be, don’t try and hold onto the current until you fry, but when you let go and fall, try to land on your feet and walk.
Eric Krebs is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .