My dad loves ice cream. Our freezer is always stocked with it. His favorite flavor hasn’t changed in thirty years: coffee oreo.
I learned this as a child, about to go on a grocery run. I asked my dad his favorite flavor, because I wanted to surprise him with especially good ice cream. But there was no coffee oreo ice cream on the shelves of the small-town IGA. Even when we drove the 45 miles to the nearest big grocery store, they didn’t have coffee oreo.
Coffee oreo ice cream, or at least the variety my dad prefers, can be found in only one store in the entire world: Ashley’s Ice Cream, on Yale’s campus, in New Haven, Connecticut. I wondered about this fantastical place, this place that produced a dessert so tasty even my father’s seasoned, ice-cream-loving taste buds could find no comparison. It must be magical.
There were other tantalizing clues about this place called “Yale”: for example, the Yale Alumni magazine got delivered to our house six times a year. When I was supposed to be washing dishes, I liked to sit in the bathroom with a copy and read the classifieds in which the rich old people try to find love.
All the people in the magazine seemed to have done something spectacular: discovered a planet, cured a disease, published a novel or inherited a lot of money. They owned yachts and vacation houses in Europe and entire countries, probably. They listened to classical music, wore fancy suits, hosted dinner parties and discussed grand ideas of philosophy and politics. The pages of the magazine told the same story over and over again: a story of power, wealth, prestige and privilege.
It was strange to think of my dad as part of that institution. I could not picture him on a yacht or a European vacation. He hates wearing ties, and my mom said she fell in love with him because he always drives a junky car.
Although my dad spent four years at Yale, it remained a mystery to me. All I knew about Yale was that it had great ice cream and a lot of graduates in their seventies were using the alumni magazine as an analog version of Tinder.
I didn’t know anything about the Ivy League, except that it was bougie, Harvard should be avoided at all costs and MIT was part of it somehow?
In fact, I didn’t know much about college in general, except that it was expensive and I was expected to go. So I could get a degree. So I could earn money. So I could be an adult.
Nobody told me how to go about choosing a college, so in my senior year, I just applied to the three schools where my mom, dad and grandma went. It’s a privilege of legacy, to have somebody who went before you.
In the summer before my senior year, I went to tour Yale with my dad and grandma. It was the first time my dad had been back to campus since he graduated. We shuffled into SSS with the other prospective students and listened to a man in a brown suit talk about how great Yale is. I thought,” Why does the ceiling have so many lions on it?”
My dad took a picture of me standing on Cross Campus so that we could feel like tourists. I still have that photo: me squinting into the sunlight, giving a thumbs up in my “I love Montana!” t-shirt. I had a giant pimple on my chin.
My dad rarely talks about his college days. I thought maybe here, on Yale’s campus, with the weirdly-shaped gyms and tree-lined streets, my private father would finally open up. And he did. Sort of.
I made a careful list of the things my dad told me about Yale:
- He brought rock-climbing gear to college and made it his mission to climb on the roof of every campus building.
- He started a band with his friends. He was the lead singer.
- He brought a car to college so that he could drive places. He ended up walking all over New Haven to find his car after it got towed for the sixth time.
- He was in Ezra Stiles college and his roommate was a math major.
- He changed his major four times, from theater to environmental engineering to physics and finally to biology.
Then, I asked him why he turned down a full-ride at MIT to go to Yale. He told me that at 17, he went to visit Yale with some friends and had an excellent time playing frisbee and participating in a prank war. I asked him, was that really why? He thought about it. He told me that besides being fun, Yale had good food and was just far enough from home that he didn’t feel smothered by his parents but close enough that he could take the train home on the weekends to do laundry.
At the end of that first campus visit, my dad and I went to Ashley’s. We sat at the counter booth and shared a bowl of coffee oreo. And, as I tasted that first creamy, caffeinated spoonful, I realized that I had found my new favorite ice cream flavor.
The entire campus visit felt surreal, and I knew this institution was a dream entirely out of reach. So I was content with my decision to attend my mother’s college, a tiny, religious, liberal arts school in the hills of Virginia.
But then I got into Yale.
My dad did not say “Go to Yale!”
Instead he said, “You will thrive wherever you go!” Then he paused for a moment. “Except Harvard. Don’t go to Harvard.”
My parents, very generously, told me they just wanted me to be happy and didn’t care where I went to college. My parents then told me that my choice of college would determine not only the place where I would to spend the next four years, but also which parent I loved more. Just kidding. They didn’t say that.
Anyway, I chose Yale.
Soon, everyone in my town knew I was going to Yale, and everyone was planning my future. “You’re going to go to Yale and be a doctor, just like your dad!” they’d say, admiringly. I’d smile and nod, because that was, in fact, my plan. Because I am my father’s daughter, I must follow in his footsteps.
I decided that now, since I was actually going to Yale, I needed to know about my dad’s experience as a student. Since he wasn’t talking, I recruited my grandmother to give me the inside scoop. She enthusiastically agreed. Moms never say no to talking about their sons. And gradually, as she talked, I realized that my dad was good at Yale. Like, really good.
He fit the definition of a Yale Man almost to a T, or a Y: attended an excellent public school in Massachusetts, acted in eight shows by his sophomore year, joined the Yale Dramat, volunteered at the soup kitchen, ran in marathon club, did research on birds, led a youth group, took FOOT leader training, went an entire semester without washing his bedsheets and was a FroCo.
And he did all this seemingly effortlessly. When I was deciding on Yale, I was worried about the academic rigor. My dad told me it would be no problem. He said everyone thought the classes would be difficult, but he thought they were fine.
It may have been fine for him, but I am struggling. What do I do when my dad becomes just another Yale student to compare myself to?
I went to a shitty public school and got an average ACT score. I didn’t join any clubs my first semester at Yale because I was too overwhelmed with the academic-heavy classes that far exceed the challenge of anything I’d done in high school. Besides that, all the things I considered myself to be “good” at before were not up to the standards of Yale’s competitive extracurriculars. My violin sits in the corner of my suite, gathering dust.
I’ve been here for less than two semesters, and I’ve thought about dropping out at least once a week. My secret, nagging worry — like probably every Yale student — is that, while I may be mediocre at a lot of things, I am good at nothing.
When I fail yet another chemistry midterm, I wonder, why am I here at all?
Thirty years ago, my father was good at Yale. And I came here too, carried on the wave of my father’s legacy. But why?
I wonder what I would find if I read my admissions file. Did they see him in me?
I did not inherit his quiet brilliance, his effortless ability to succeed in everything he tries or his propensity for science and math.
Instead, I have his strawberry blonde hair and freckled arms.
I have his bad eyesight, his love for running, his habit of stashing candy in desk drawers.
His integrity, I hope.
I wonder if Yale only wants me because of my father.
I went home for winter break and sent my FAFSA to five other colleges. Maybe, I thought, if I transferred to my state school, I would feel like I belonged.
Over break, my dad invited me to Taco John’s for lunch. We ordered bean burritos, his favorite. I sat there for a moment, quiet before confessing. “Dad, I cannot do this. You did it, but I am not like you.” We talked for two hours in the sticky booth. I don’t remember what he said, just that it was some word of reassurance. Yale is just a school. It doesn’t define you.
I realize I do want to follow my father’s legacy. Just maybe not in this, in being good at Yale.
I want to be like my dad, who waves at each car we drive by in case it is somebody he knows — it often is. I want to be like my dad, who lets a trip to the grocery store for milk stretch for two hours as he unselfishly answers questions from his patients he sees there. I want to be like my dad, who makes coffee for my family every morning, even when he leaves before any of us are awake, and always leaves a note: “Made coffee! Just turn the knob!” I want to be like my dad, who sheds his button-downs and slacks on the weekends for holey, paint-splattered pants, and goes back to the office to pull weeds. I want to be like my dad who listens deeply and speaks with compassion and strives for excellence and never complains.
My father has a legacy beyond Yale. And that is the legacy I want.