I spent most of the First Year Address staring at the ceiling. Every surface that wasn’t painted in azure or cobalt was covered with gold. I was fascinated. But I was also hot. Very hot. Despite Woolsey Hall’s lavish adornments, it lacks air conditioning. And there were about two thousand people in that room. So I was looking at the ceiling out of desperation as much as out of fascination. I needed something to focus on so that I would not pass out.
The President of the University was giving a speech about the importance of recognizing false narratives. His words washed over me, like lukewarm waves. Some of his sentences caught my ear, like the assonance he used to describe the university’s “diverse” faculty, whose expertise ranged “from Engineering to Economics to English to Environmental Studies.” But mostly I heard the whoosh of the event program that I was fanning back and forth in front of my face.
We had been told to dress nicely, so I was wearing a skirt that I had borrowed from my new roommate. My bare legs made contact with the wooden seat below me and I could feel the sweat pooling around them. I imagined the first class of students inaugurated in this hall 114 years ago. They sat exactly where I was sitting, and they were probably sweating just as much as I was. But none of them wore skirts.
The applause ringing through the hall jolted me back to the present. I dropped my program onto my lap to join. I realized I’d forgotten about the white handkerchief that my freshman counselor had given me. I resisted the urge to wipe my forehead with it.
The dean of the college rose from his chair on the stage and asked us all to do the same. “Now,” he said, “we will sing Bright College Years for the first time. In accordance with Yale tradition, we will all wave our handkerchiefs on the last line.” The only time I had seen white handkerchiefs waved was on Tom and Jerry, when Tom needed to surrender.
The lyrics to “Bright College Years” were printed on the back of my program. The crowd started to sing: “Bright college years, with pleasure rife, / The shortest, gladdest years of life.” I tripped over the lyrics. My eyes scanned down the page, trying to catch up, but I was only able to join in for the last emphatic line: “For God, for Country and for Yale!”
“For God, for Country and for Yale,” read the blue banners hanging in the party suites, as if the lyrics were some sort of holy water that could wash away the stench of stale beer and old takeout. I imagined the banner like a Mad Lib: (verb) for God, for Country and for Yale. Party for God, for Country and for Yale. Drink for God, for Country and for Yale. Study for God, for Country and for Yale. What would God have thought about being grouped with Yale?
In my roommate’s music theory class, she was assigned to write a song in the style of Schubert using “Bright College Years” as the main melody. She labored over it for days, using some cheap music notation software that she had downloaded to her computer. On the day it was due, she showed me the final result, using a computer-generated tone. I barely remembered the tune. Sung by the computer, it sounded more like an ice cream truck jingle than anything else.
Halfway through her composition, my roommate laughed because she had modulated “Bright College Years” to a minor key, making it seem longing and forlorn. “It sounds so wrong,” she said. But I didn’t mind it.
Sometime during my sophomore year, I found myself lying on the stage in Woolsey Hall during a break in an orchestra rehearsal. I had dramatically splayed myself on the ground in a flagrant demonstration of my exhaustion. I looked up at the blue sky that was painted on the ceiling, thinking about how small I was with respect to the room and the history it held. I felt lucky to be at Yale, but something was still missing. With all its golden splendor, the Woolsey ceiling could never be the same as the real sky. I could not forget that if I stepped outside, it would be dark, and cold and grey.
I’m not sure whether it started that night, or sometime later, but eventually the grey overcame the splendor. The illusion of a bright blue heaven disappeared, and I was left only with emptiness. I don’t blame Yale for my depression, but I can’t know what I would have felt had I remembered to look up at the real sky instead of at the one that Yale had so painstakingly painted for me. I can’t know whether the grey only felt so dark because I had been promised light.
Rumor says that the steam tunnels can take you from one of the residential colleges to Woolsey Hall. One summer evening, some friends and I decided to explore them. With only our phone flashlights to guide us, we weaved around the tight corners, holding our arms close to our bodies so that they wouldn’t get burned by the steam pipes. It was thrilling to be under Yale, inside Yale, to see a side of campus that was supposed to remain hidden, a part of Yale’s history that was supposed to remain unwritten. Nowhere else on campus – not even in the bathroom or in the basement – had I ever seen graffiti, not even initials inside of a heart. People must have drawn them – there are love-crazed delinquents everywhere – but Yale must have made them disappear, like the snow on the paths the morning after a blizzard.
We kept walking. But soon all of the tunnels began to look the same, and the steam from the pipes condensed on our skin. So, we decided to surface for fresh air. We walked up the steps from the basement, not knowing where we’d emerge. When we finally surfaced, we realized we had made it across the courtyard, but the façade of the building in front of us blocked our view of Woolsey. We had no way of knowing whether the pipes’ winding paths would have brought us into the hall. We had no way of knowing whether there was a secret way to get into Woolsey – or a secret way to get out. We would never be able to experience what Woolsey was like at night, when the lights were off and no one was there.
At the Harvard/Yale football game, some student group made a t-shirt that said “For God, For Country and Four Loco.” I laughed. In a single line, that sentence was even more irreverent than the traditional third-quarter nudity. I had never seen anyone on campus drink Four Loco. I was pretty sure that the drink was illegal anyway – at least in its original combination of caffeine and alcohol. But somehow that seemed fitting.
On the first day of my sixth semester, an English professor introduced himself: “I would say that this class will be the best time of your life, but that would make me sad. Please don’t let that be the case. I want you to grow old, get married, have kids. If you are looking for happiness, feel free to leave.” But I stayed. I wasn’t looking for happiness because happiness is not the opposite of depression. The opposite of depression is normalcy. And I needed to redefine normalcy for myself.
My last experience in Woolsey Hall will be performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. As the symphony comes to a close, in its dramatic, joyous cadence, I will probably cry. But it will be out of happiness, and it will be normal. I won’t be the only one with tears in my eyes. When the applause rings through the hall, I will jump to my feet and look out over the audience. Through my tears, Woolsey’s ceiling will blur into impressionistic strokes of blue, white, and gold.
At commencement, I will again stand and sing “Bright College Years” and will be asked to wave a handkerchief in celebration. I will sit with the same two thousand people. But, this time, it will be outside, under the real sky and whatever weather it brings. And, this time, as any good Yale student does, I will have studied. I will understand the significance of “Bright College Years.” I will have considered its lyrics and done a close reading. I will know, then, what to do if “In after years, should troubles rise / To cloud the blue of sunny skies.” Because the after years started when I first walked into Woolsey, and the sky was only ever painted in the first place.
Laura Michael | firstname.lastname@example.org